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NASCAR Barometer: Bump and Run

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.

"Bump and run" might be the phrase that best describes what took place Sunday at Dover International Speedway. It seemed as though drivers' patience was running thin, and many forced their way through to get where they wanted. It wouldn't be surprising to see a handful of feuds carry over from the weekend's festivities into this week's race at Pocono Raceway.

Through all of the bumping and banging last week, the concrete Dover oval produced some great racing. The higher speeds of the sixth generation cars perhaps caused some engine issues, and despite Joe Gibbs Racing's dominance, they weren't the ones who lasted the distance. Instead it was Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmie Johnson who raced each other from the final restart, Johnson starting early and suffering a penalty. In the closing laps Tony Stewart reeled in the Colombian and surged forth on the outside to claim victory for the stuttering team.

Five hundred miles at Pocono Raceway are on the schedule for this week. The track was repaved in 2102, and the speed of the new generation of cars is almost assured to generate faster lap times than seen before at the long track. Engine endurance could certainly become a factor this week. The unique layout of this oval creates some great racing, and requires teams to compromise setups separating the contenders from the rest.

UPGRADE

Tony Stewart -
Last week Stewart rekindled his championship flame. He drove a nearly perfect 400 miles at Dover, reeling in Juan Pablo Montoya and passing him in the closing laps to finally seize the promise that has eluded him and his team throughout the early season. Stewart is known for coming alive during the summer months, and he is living up to that expectation already. Pocono presents a terrific opportunity for the No. 14 to build on his five-race finishing average of 8.4 at the track and continue his climb up the standings through the summer months. This team inexplicably struggled for much of 2013, but that corner appears to have been turned with a win and a top-10 finish two weeks ago in Charlotte.

Kevin Harvick -
Pocono seems to be a track that suits Harvick. The long 500 miles will give him plenty of opportunity to stay on the lead lap constantly making chassis adjustments to make a surprise appearance among the leaders in the final miles. His two top-5 finishes from the last five Pocono races help his average finish to 10.6. His eighth-place finish at Dover marked his third consecutive top-10 finish and is indicative of a driver and team pairing that is intent on claiming a spot in the Chase and making one last run together for a championship. Some would have expected Harvick to fade this season after declaring he would leave the team at the end of the year, but that simply has not been the case.

Mark Martin -
Sunday was a solid effort from Martin. He finished ninth in the FedEx 400 at Dover, marking his first top-10 finish since the STP 400 in April. Judging by Sunday's performance, Martin should be in store for another great run this week. Pocono has produced a top-5 and two top-10s for Martin in the last five races at the track. His average finish in that time is 10.4, not failing to finish on the lead lap in any of those attempts. He may be a part-time driver this season, but that doesn't mean that he can't mix things up at the front of the field when things are going his way. All of that good news makes Martin a top fantasy choice this week.

Jeff Gordon -
While he narrowly missed out on victory Sunday, Gordon has a lot to take away from the weekend. His third-place finish granted him his third top-5 of the season, his second in the last three races. Gordon also happens to have an impressive recent stint at Pocono. In the last five races at the Pennsylvania triangle no driver has finished higher than Gordon. His average result in that time is 6.6, finishing on the lead lap every time, scoring two wins in the process. Gordon might just be this week's top fantasy selection, and if he successfully avoids any mistakes he should be squarely in the mix for victory at the end.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
A solid second-place finish at Dover International Speedway may be just what Montoya and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing need to get their act in gear. There have been moments this season where the team indicated that they might be on the road to improvement, but results still haven't been coming. That was until last week when Montoya was leading at the final restart. Montoya put himself in a position to win Sunday, and notwithstanding Jimmie Johnson's penalty, the result still would have been a clear step in the right direction. His statistics at Pocono aren't the best, just one top-10 in the last five races, but Sunday's performance could be a signal that this team could be on their way to better things this season.

DOWNGRADE

Matt Kenseth -
Joe Gibbs racing's engine woes bit for the second week in a row at Dover International Speedway. This time it was Kenseth's turn to have an issue, spraying smoke and oil across the track, and forcing him into the garage and out of the race. Kyle Busch suffered the engine bug a week earlier, and it is concerning that two drivers on the same team have suffered failures so close together. While Kenseth is arguably one of the best drivers on the circuit, his engine trouble last week, and just two top-10 finishes in the last five Pocono outings make him a bit less attractive this week. His average finish in those five runs is 14.4, and with continued JGR engine issues, his recent record at the track may not outweigh the risk.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex started second Sunday at Dover International Speedway. He has a top-5 and three top-10s in his last five Pocono races, helping his average finish in that time to 10.8. Unfortunately, his engine supplier is the same as Kenseth's and he too suffered a failure. Toyota engines have been extremely fast, and that speed could be an indicator that the equipment is being pushed too hard. Truex himself has been awfully quick some races, but even without the engine issues they haven't been able to close the deal yet. Something has kept his team from making the right moves in the closing laps to claim victory. Couple that with engine concerns and you have a driver to avoid this week.

Kurt Busch -
With just two finishes in his last four Pocono starts, Busch may not be one to rely on this week. His average finish in that time is 17.9, despite an average start of 6.2. The two times he did manage to finish produced top-5 results, but why would anyone be confident with a completion rate of just 50 percent of the last four races at the triangle? He ran well at Dover until an ill-timed caution flag put him down a lap to the leaders. He had to work his way back forward following that misstep and was only able to battle back for a 12th-place finish. Busch could do well this week, or not. Circumstances suggest that playing him is a gamble, so keep that in mind when choosing.

Jamie McMurray -
A broken radiator derailed McMurray's quest for a top finish Sunday in Dover. He was running in the top 10 when the issue unfolded and he had to pit for a change, putting him down from the leaders. He went to the garage to have the team work replace it and hopefully return, but any chance of a top finish was gone at that point. McMurray's recent Pocono finishing average is 20.8 in the last five races. His four lead-lap finishes produced only one top-10. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has started showing signs of life after multiple seasons in the doldrums, however this may be a week to save a McMurray start for later.

Jeff Burton -
The 11th-place finish the No. 31 scored Sunday in Dover was its second consecutive top-15 result. While it was largely an anonymous day for the veteran driver Burton turned in some decent points, but still looks unlikely to be a race winner any time soon. To make things worse, Burton claims one of the worst average finishes of any driver who managed to complete each of the last five Pocono races on the lead lap. His average result in that span is 16.4, and includes a solitary top-10 finish. This season has proven to be marginally better for the veteran than past years, but Pocono continues to present a challenge. Burton still remains a driver to avoid for most fantasy owners.