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NASCAR Barometer: Lady in Black

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.

Rain interrupted the running of Sunday's Aarons 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. Carl Edwards was in front when rain came after the halfway mark, but NASCAR made use of new track drying equipment to get the field rolling again and finish the distance.

After the long delay, drivers fought tooth and nail despite having more than 100 miles remaining in the race. The action was as if there were only a few laps left, not a whole stint plus a pit stop.

The pressure that built after the restart finally boiled over with less than 10 laps remaining. The contact that came was almost inevitable, and it was Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman who came off worst. While a number of good cars were damaged, Busch and Newman paired an immediate "game over" with the No. 78 flying through the air and landing on Newman's hood. The pile-up set up a green-white checkered finish to the end, and the Front Row Motorports teammates seized the opportunity and pushed each other forward with David Ragan claiming the win.

Saturday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is often one of the most exciting races of the season. It takes a very special driver who can consistently tame this track, and running well means minding your tires, while grazing the wall at each end of the track to get the most powerful slingshot down the straights. This track is one steeped in history and close finishes. Fantasy owners need to select carefully this week, and here's whom to consider.

UPGRADE

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth dominated from the front of the field Sunday at Talladega. He led the most laps in the race and looked like the pied piper for much of the afternoon. His car was so strong that only multiples of cars working together could get around the No. 20 for the lead. Two wins already this season make Kenseth a driver atop the heap almost every week, and the strength he is demonstrating with Joe Gibbs Racing has to make everyone a little nervous. Three top-10s and an average finish of 12.0 in the last five Darlington races make the competition a bit nervous this week as well, and fantasy owners have themselves a solid play for Saturday night despite missing the victory last Sunday.

Jeff Gordon -
When the NASCAR circus visits a historic place like Darlington Raceway, it is hard to bet against any of the drivers with winning experience. Gordon is one of those veterans, and even more recently he hasn't disappointed either. His average Darlington result in the last five races is 11.8, with three top-5 finishes in tow. He battled hard through Sunday afternoon and into the evening, overcoming a host of problems to finish 11th. Gordon is an expert at taking the best from the prior week and using it to his advantage the next. This week should showcase Gordon's best attributes, making him a positive option on fantasy rosters.

Brad Keselowski -
After finishing 15th at Talladega, Keselowski has to be thankful that he was able to come away with a decent points effort after seeing so much carnage throughout the running. Instead of getting completely knocked out of the race, he wheeled his car to the finish line despite the wrecks, rain and darkness. The points he scored last week will go a long way toward helping him work forward to secure a spot in the Chase. This week could present another opportunity for the No. 2 to climb the order. Additionally, Keselowski can get the job done at Darlington. His average finish in the last four races at the historic oval is 9.2, with a top-5 and two top-10s, a very respectable recent record for fantasy rosters.

Jimmie Johnson -
A win and another top-5 in the last five Darlington races help Johnson to a 13.4 average finish at the "Lady in Black." Johnson and the No. 48 team have been on song this season and were completely with the game Sunday at Talladega, running up front the entire distance, ready to pounce when the moment was right. Johnson is a modern-day driver who can run with the best on the historic Darlington oval. In total he has three winner's trophies from the track and a 9.1 career average. Numbers like that are very impressive from the five-time champion, and that makes it difficult not to select him in most fantasy formats this week.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin's Darlington record is one of the best through the last five races at the track. His average finish is 5.8 with a win and just one result that was not in the top 10. He made his return from a broken back last weekend in Talladega, running 25 laps before handing the car over. He plans on running the full distance this week in Darlington, and has proven that he can overcome physical pain to score results. The last time he left the car, it was for a torn ligament in his knee. He returned to Victory Lane from that hurdle very quickly and could do the same again as soon as this weekend.

David Ragan -
This week's "atta boy" upgrade has to go to Ragan and Front Row Motorsports. Coming from almost nowhere at the end of Sunday's Aarons 499, Ragan and teammate David Gilliland forced their way forward and stole the victory out from under the noses of the big boys. It was an incredible run from one of the underdogs at Front Row, all set up by the green-white-checkered circumstance. Ragan has always been a promising restrictor-plate racer, and he showed that, with a bit of skill, any driver on the track could win on a superspeedway. While Ragan may not be your horse for Darlington, the win will boost this team's confidence and help it roll forward to achieve even more.

DOWNGRADE

Kevin Harvick -
After winning at Richmond International Raceway, Harvick fell right down the order and was caught in a wreck early at Talladega, effectively ending any chance of a top finish he might have had. This week doesn't look to be too much brighter for the No. 29 crew either. Harvick's Darlington record isn't fantastic in the last five races, finishing in the top 10 once, and tallying a 17.8 average result. He did finish on the lead lap four of those tries, just not high enough up the running order. Harvick is in his last season with Richard Childress Racing and will sign off from the team with top finishes, but fantasy owners should temper expectations of him this weekend.

Clint Bowyer -
There aren't many tracks on the series schedule that would suggest Bowyer not to be an attractive option, but Darlington presents one of those stops. His average finish in the last five races at the oval is only 26.8, with just two lead-lap finishes. He scored two DNFs in that span and is not one of the top drivers to hang your hat on this week. He was involved in the late crash in Sunday's Aarons 499, stunting what could have been a decent result for the team. Instead, Bowyer's car was severely damaged, and his hopes of a top-10 were dashed. After that down week, Bowyer will have to work hard to bounce back, but Darlington might not be the place he does it.

Aric Almirola -
While he might be the revelation of the season so far, Almirola may not be one to rely on at Darlington. He only has one start at the track, finishing 19th there last season. Almirola has been on a terrific run this year and even racked up another top-10 with a solid run at Talladega on Sunday, his fourth in a row. Almirola and this team continue to demonstrate progress every week, and there is no doubt that this group will achieve even more as this season continues. This week, however, is one of the circuit's most challenging tracks. It takes experience and a specific type of driving that not every competitor has. It is just too soon to tell if Almirola can conquer the track too tough to tame.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle is a picture of inconsistency recently at Darlington Raceway. His average finish in the last five events there is 18.6, with two top-10 finishes, however those finishes are his only lead-lap results in that time. He was caught in the big one early in Sunday's Aarons 499, which put him deep in the field and not much of a chance to overcome. Biffle hasn't finished in the top 10 for three straight races after turning in three consecutive top-10s leading up to April's STP 400 at Kansas Speedway. Those results have dropped the No. 16 down the points standings, making his push for a Chase spot even more difficult. Biffle needs to get back on top of things, and fantasy owners should wait until he does.

Kurt Busch -
Perhaps the most spectacular moment of Sunday's protracted race at Talladega was Busch's car flying through the air. With less than 10 laps remaining, Busch was tagged in the right rear, which caused him to spin and flip, landing on top of Ryan Newman's machine. Luckily everyone involved in the incident escaped unhurt, but Busch's day was done. He will pick himself up, dust off the dirt and head for the track where he helped produce one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history. This week, however, he may not be able to repeat that amazing finish from 2003, where he lost by centimeters to Ricky Craven. In his last five Darlington tries, Busch has only led one lap, and averages a finish of 15.8. Busch has plenty to overcome this week.

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