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NASCAR Barometer: Maturity Paying Off for Busch

C.J. Radune

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

It was racing under the lights Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway for the NRA 500. As usual, when the sun goes down, the racing heats up. The competition was thick, but there two drivers distinguished themselves from the rest of the field.

Kyle Busch and brother Kurt qualified alongside one another on the front row, and it was Kyle who jumped out front. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates were strong as well, but the only competition Busch really faced was Martin Truex Jr. The two drivers spent the majority of time leading the field, and it was clear that one of the two would take the victory.

On a late restart, Truex and Busch started side-by-side ahead of the field. Busch put the moves on Truex and streaked away for the victory. The dueling competitors, Matt Kenseth's fire in the pits and close racing throughout the 500 miles combined for an excellent night under the lights.

This week presents another 1.5-mile oval for teams to test themselves. This time, however, a change is in store for teams when they arrive at Kansas Speedway. The track was repaved and testing speeds into the turns topped well over 200 miles per hour. Engines survived 500 miles at Texas, but will they survive the STP 400 this week?

UPGRADE

Kyle Busch -
Busch accomplished the sweep at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend, winning both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races. He looked like the car to beat for much of the Cup race Saturday, and even when Martin Truex Jr. took the lead, it seemed likely that Busch would eventually catch him for the win. That he did, on a late caution, and Truex had nothing left for the No. 18. Busch only has one top-10 finish in the last five Kansas races. He finished on the lead lap three of those times, and scored a 17.0 average finish. Busch has matured as a driver in recent seasons, and this could be the year everything comes together for the super quick fighter.

Jimmie Johnson -
Sunday's sixth-place finish for Johnson, while not what he hoped for at the start of the night, was his fifth top-10 result in the first seven races. That consistency has earned Johnson the point lead over Brad Keselowsk and continues to signal that the No. 48 team will be a threat this season. The run this team is on doesn't look like it will slow this week, either. Like most 1.5-mile ovals, Johnson has a handle on Kansas Speedway. In the last five races at the track his record is a win, three top-5s and five top-10 finishes. Choosing Johnson is a safe and confident move this week.

Matt Kenseth -
The only other driver who can match Johnson through the last five races at Kansas Speedway is Kenseth. His win, three top-5s and five top-10s give him exactly the same average finish of 4.4, but Kenseth tends to qualify better. His 12.6 average start in those five races is six positions better than Johnson. This week the No. 20 is the perfect alternative if you choose not to start Johnson. Kenseth's 12th-place finish at Texas was his second consecutive finish outside the top 10, but he is still highly competitive. Unfortunately, his recent results have dropped him down the points table a bit. He could still get the job done this week, though, and should be a serious consideration.

Carl Edwards -
While he hasn't lit the season on fire so far, Edwards has shown speed nearly every week. His average finish from the last five Kansas races is an impressive 7.8, and includes two top-5s and two other top-10s. Roush Fenway Racing is one of the teams that have the 1.5-mile ovals figured out, and Edwards has a habit of putting that knowledge to good use. After all the trouble he experienced last week in Texas he clawed his way back into a top-5 position in the closing miles. When the checkered flag waved, Edwards finished third. That is an impressive result from the driver who thought his engine was giving up earlier in the race. Edwards is fighting hard, and results are starting to come his way.

Brian Vickers -
After one race in the seat of the No. 11 car, it might be time to consider Vickers. His last two tries at Kansas resulted in an average finish of 17.5, with a top-10 average qualifying effort. Vickers is driving to earn a full-time seat in the series for 2014, which is plenty of inspiration for a driver who still has a lot to give this sport. He scored a top-10 finish in his first race with the team and, given his statistics at Kansas, is in line for another top finish this week. Vickers presents the perfect option for fantasy owners to ration starts for other top-tier drivers while he substitutes for Hamlin.

DOWNGRADE

Jeff Burton -
Despite finishing each of the last five Sprint Cup races at Kansas Speedway, Burton only finished on the lead lap once. His average finish in those events is 22.8, which is among the lowest of any competitor in this week's race. It was disappointment when he tagged the wall late in Saturday's race, as Marcos Ambrose spun ahead of him. The most disappointing piece was that Burton was on a decent run before, though. All told, he finished 23rd Saturday night, yet another lackluster finish from a team that has made progress but still not enough to truly turn the tide. This team still battles for consistency, which is not a good thing for fantasy owners.

Mark Martin -
Martin raced home to 14th position Saturday night in Texas, a track where he hasn't had the best results throughout his career. The effort was respectable for the veteran, though he doesn't offer an upside significant enough to warrant fantasy attention at certain tracks. Kansas Speedway is one of those circuits. With just one top-10 finish in his last five Kansas tries, Martin isn't a strong fantasy option this week. His average finish in that span is 20.4, and he only managed to finish on the lead lap twice. Save your Martin starts for later in the season where he boasts a better record, and becomes a more dependable option.

Joey Logano -
Trouble at the rear of his car made Logano late to inspection Saturday night, and subsequently late to the grid. He was forced to start from the back of the field and work his way forward. A fortunate caution enabled him to come forward in the closing laps, which was the result of him sticking through a difficult situation. When the dust settled Logano found himself a top-5 result, which even he wouldn't have predicted just hours earlier. This driver is showing his determination, and things could turnaround shortly. However, his record in the last five Kansas races includes zero top finishes and zero laps led. He finished on the lead lap just twice, despite an average start of 8.0. This week is a good one to give Logano a break.

Marcos Ambrose -
Despite putting forth a strong qualifying effort, and decent race Saturday in Texas, Ambrose is not likely to repeat again this week. The Tasmanian finished just inside the top 20 in 19th position after the trouble and certainly didn't live up to expectations, nor his teammate. The sister car to the No. 9 booked a top-10, which has to be even more discouraging to Ambrose, who will measure himself against his teammate. At Kansas, Ambrose's average finish in the last five starts is 19.4. He scored a top-10 there in that time, but only finished on the lead lap twice. Road courses and short ovals make Ambrose a solid fantasy option, but a typical 1.5-mile oval like Kansas isn't the ticket.

Jeff Gordon -
It probably doesn't seem just to place Gordon in the Downgrade column, but there are two factors at play, and one isn't the late broken wheel that ruined his chances of a strong finish Saturday in Texas. In fact, the first is that while he has shown competitiveness against his teammates this season, he hasn't topped them consistently. Second, his last five Kansas races put him at an average finish of 14.8. When there are three other Hendrick Motorsports teammates with better records at the track over the same period there is no reason to think that Gordon will come out on top this week. For those reasons, if you're thinking of playing a Hendrick driver, odds are probably better with the other choices.

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