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NASCAR Barometer: The Right Choice

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.

Short-track racing under the lights usually produces some of the most exciting contests of any season. Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400 was no exception either. Richmond International Raceway is one of the drivers' favorite tracks, and they let it all hang out last weekend.

Throughout the 400 laps unlikely frontrunners took turns leading, while some favorites had challenges. In the final segment it looked as though Juan Pablo Montoya was going to claim his first oval victory, but a late caution and the team's decision to pit allowed others into the mix. The resulting restart saw Kevin Harvick make a terrific low-side pass into the lead and never look back. Prior to the caution it was Harvick who was chasing, but the restart gave him just the window of opportunity he needed to seal the deal.


Talladega Superspeedway is on the schedule for this weekend. The giant track is the second restrictor-plate race of the season, and almost all know that it can produce some surprising results. Favorites can often encounter trouble, while surprises can come from almost anywhere in the pack. The Aarons 499 can be a game of roulette, but some can claim relatively consistent competitive races.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick -
Coming from seventh position on the final green-white-checkered finish, Harvick pulled an impressive pass that shot him into the lead with little more than a single lap remaining Saturday night. Harvick was quick all evening, and forced this win into his hands with gutsy driving. He has been a driver on the cusp of success for much of the early season, but just hadn't made the breakthrough. This will be his last season with Richard Childress Racing, but both parties want to end the relationship on top. Last week's win pushed him two spots higher in the points to ninth and gives him momentum to roll onward. He scored two top-5s in the last three lead-lap finishes at Talladega Superspeedway and should be a top fantasy choice this week.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer has best average finish, 6.6, in the last five Talladega races, nearly four positions better than the next closest competitor. He finished on the lead lap four times in that span, claiming two wins, three top-5s and four top-10s. His second-place finish Saturday in Richmond was his second consecutive, and third in the last four races. Those results put him fifth in the championship standings, placing him in a very strong position for a spot in the Chase. Michael Waltrip Racing continues to put racy cars on track, and Bowyer is definitely capable of closing the deal for his first win of the season this week in the Aarons 499.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski is another driver who can claim a win in the last five Talladega races. With that win, two top-5s and four top-10s, he has the third-highest finishing average among active drivers in that period at 11.0. Keselowski suffered through his fair share of adversity Saturday night. The No. 2 car hit the wall early, which put Keselowski behind but not out. Continuing to work diligently on its car, the team helped Keselowski wheel it further and further up the standings. However, finally the engine lost a cylinder and the night was over. Before that, Keselowski had worked his way back in touch with the leaders, and could have been in line for a top-10 result. Talladega is a place where this team came rebound quickly.

Jimmie Johnson -
While Talladega and Daytona International Speedway are different tracks, both are restrictor-plate behemoths where Hendrick Motorsports often makes an impression. Bearing that in mind, it is hard to look further than February's Daytona 500 winner. He may only have an average finish of 17.2 in the last five Talladega races, but he does own a win and another top-10 in that time. He was in line for at least a top-10 result Saturday evening, until he was caught in an incident that forced him to the pits for repairs. However, Johnson steadily picked his way as far forward as possible, coming home 12th when all was said and done. Johnson can win on restrictor-plate tracks, which is why fantasy owners should consider playing him this week.

Matt Kenseth -
After getting slapped with significant penalties following his win in the STP 400, Kenseth promptly put the adversity behind him and qualified on pole for last week's Toyota Owners 400. This team brushed off a severe setback and came back swinging, which is the mark of champions. Despite testing Kurt Busch's temper on the final lap, Kenseth tallied another top-10 finish for the season, which will help him overcome the points deductions from prior rule infractions. This team has been a leader for much of the season, and it is sad to see something off the track drop it from contention. This team will be hungrier than ever, and that could mean plenty of top-10s in the near future.

DOWNGRADE

Marcos Ambrose -
It is slightly difficult to find current drivers who haven't scored at least one top-10 finish in Talladega through the last five races, but Ambrose can claim that prize. His average finish at the track in that time is 25.2, with an average start of 20.2. No matter how you slice it, Ambrose simply isn't a top choice this week. His engine gave way early Saturday night, ending his Richmond effort, and this week presents a circuit where Ambrose just hasn't gotten the job done. At times he has shown that he can race with the best of them in the draft, but that alone is not enough to warrant a fantasy selection this week.

Carl Edwards -
With just one top-10 finish in the last five Talladega races, Edwards may not be a go-to driver this week. His average finish in the last five Talladega races is 20.2, despite finishing on the lead lap three times. He only led 10 laps in those races, and Roush Fenway Racing hasn't traditionally been a powerhouse on restrictor-plate tracks. The team has a victory already this season, along with four other top-10 finishes in the first nine races. Those results are enough to place Edwards second in the point standings, but that doesn't mean the team will do that every week. Talladega can be hit or miss for teams and drivers, and recently this team has been missing there.

Ryan Newman -
While his team owner is struggling, Newman hasn't fared quite as badly. Two top-10 finishes in the last five events isn't what the team is aiming for, but it isn't terrible either. This week, however, could be a week to pass on the No. 39. His average finish in the last five Talladega races is 26.2, with three lead-lap finishes. His lone top-10 in those races is disappointing given that he only failed to finish in one of those tries. Stewart-HAAS Racing has struggled to live up to its potential this season, represented in Newman's inconsistent finishes this season. Frustration is starting to build, which could breed mistakes. That won't help right the ship.

Jamie McMurray -
Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400 showcased Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, but yet again neither driver was able to seal the deal. Juan Pablo Montoya led late in the race, and McMurray was solidly in the top runners at times as well. The final pit stops and green-white-checkered finish dropped both down the order, and McMurray fared the worst, coming home 26th. At Talladega, two lead-lap finishes and just one DNF are two ingredients for a disappointing average finish, and that is just what McMurray brings to this week's Aarons 499. His average finish in the last five Talladega races with those statistics is 26.2, making him a less than optimal selection for fantasy rosters this week.

Kurt Busch -
It is a bit difficult to put Busch in the Downgrade column this week. The No. 78 was close to winning Saturday night, and Busch drove well above what the car was probably capable of, but the race didn't come to him in the final laps. Busch is driving for a team that has won at Talladega, and anyone knows that Busch can finish strongly at a restrictor-plate race. Unfortunately, his average finish in the last five Talladega races is 28.6 with just two lead-lap finishes. In fact, he failed to finish twice in those five tries, and that is why Busch is a gambler's pick this week. Talladega can produce random top and bottom finishes, and since Busch has finished more on the downside recently, it makes selecting him a risk.

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