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NASCAR Barometer: Racing in Wine Country

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.

Roush Fenway Racing and Greg Biffle scored Ford's 1,000th win Sunday in the backyard of American automotive manufacturers at Michigan International Speedway. The win was Biffle's first of the season, and the culmination of a big improvement in performance from the No. 16 team. Ford-powered teams have seemed to have the upper hand in the horsepower department recently, and Biffle put that edge to good use, pulling clear of the competition in the closing miles.

This week the series presents an entirely different challenge. Sonoma Raceway is a hilly circuit with plenty of opportunities for drivers to make mistakes, lose control, or even run into one another. The NASCAR Sprint Cup regulars have improved greatly at the track in the last few seasons, and the leveled competition at the track has created an extremely competitive race. Eight different drivers have won the last eight races there, so choosing who will come out on top has become more difficult than most would assume.

UPGRADE

Greg Biffle -
Biffle continued the Roush Fenway Racing dominance of the sister tracks of Michigan International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway in California on Sunday. The No. 16 took the lead in the closing miles of Sunday's race and ran away as challenger Jimmie Johnson cut a tire and scraped the wall. It was Biffle's first win of the season, and his second in a row at the Michigan oval. With two top-10 finishes in his last five races at Sonoma, Biffle could be a decent option for fantasy rosters this week as well. His average finish in that time is 15.2, which is in the top 10 of active drivers through the same period. Fantasy owners looking for a momentum play should look here.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart, when on song, is arguably one of the best drivers on road courses in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. His average finish in the last five Sonoma races is 12.4, which includes two top-5s and four top-10s. He hit the wall in practice last weekend, and the damage forced him to roll out his backup car for the race. The hole he and the team had to dig out didn't present too much of a problem, though. By the end of the 400 miles Stewart found himself in fifth position, continuing to turn in markedly better results than earlier this season. This team is now living up to its potential, and that means this week's race in Sonoma could be another top result for the No. 14.

Clint Bowyer -
One driver raised on ovals but impressing on road courses recently is Bowyer. His five-race finishing average at Sonoma is 9.6, and includes a win with two other top-5 finishes. Early contact Sunday in Michigan put the team down the order with a damaged car at a very aerodynamically sensitive racetrack. Bowyer battled back throughout the miles, but found himself to be running in the top 10 with less than 50 laps remaining. When all was said and done, Bowyer battled his wounded car forward to a seventh-place finish, his eighth top-10 result of the 15 races completed thus far. Bowyer is a fighter, and his prowess on this road course is something to be reckoned with.

Kurt Busch -
An early spin put Busch out of contention Sunday in Michigan. Early in the race the car was strong, leading laps, but things just weren't meant to be for the No. 78. Despite the trouble, Busch and his Furniture Row Racing team have been knocking on the door of victory for a number of weeks. A track like Sonoma Raceway can level the competition, and with this team's upswing in form it could serve up a surprise. Busch has a win and two top-5s in the last five Sonoma races, so we know he can race with the best on this circuit. Busch is on the verge of a breakthrough, and that is good news for fantasy owners looking for options this week.

Marcos Ambrose -
Ambrose is an expert road-course driver and is never one to count out when the series visits Sonoma. His average finish in the last five races in wine country tallied 12.8, and included a pole position and two top-5 finishes. After finishing 23rd Sunday in Michigan one could be forgiven for forgetting that he was even taking part in the race. It was a completely anonymous afternoon for the Tasmanian, but rest assured he will not be quiet this week. His two top-10 finishes so far in 2013 are likely to be increased by one as he is a top choice in Sonoma despite having yet to claim a win at the track. Even better, he has only finished outside the top 10 there once. This is a driver most fantasy owners should seriously consider this week.

DOWNGRADE

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne has been on a downward trajectory since the Coca-Cola 600. He hasn't finished in the top-20 in June and suffered a blown tire and fire Sunday, knocking him further down the point standings and into 12th. While Kahne has a win and one other top-5 in his last five Sonoma races, his struggles present a larger question. The team, which started so strongly in 2013, hasn't seen the consistency of the other Hendrick Motorsports teammates. This team needs something positive out of the road course race in Sonoma this week. If it gets that result it could be decent fantasy play in the coming weeks, but fantasy owners should tread lightly with the No. 5 until that change arrives.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
After running strongly in the opening segments of Sunday's Quicken Loans 400, luck ultimately fled the No. 88. While running in the lead Earnhardt suddenly slowed, giving the point to teammate Jimmie Johnson. The hurt wasn't over, though, as just a few laps later the No. 88 was engulfed in smoke with a terminal engine failure. Certainly the end result was not what the team hoped for, and again it failed to turn a strong chassis into a top result. The last five Sonoma races haven't produced any top-10 finishes for Earnhardt. His average finish in that span is 22.6 and is not impressive from a fantasy owner's perspective. This might be a good time to let Earnhardt regroup before selection later this summer.

Jeff Burton -
Burton is an experienced driver with no top-10 finishes in the last five Sonoma races. His average finish in that time is 21.2, and while he didn't finish any of those races down a lap, he wasn't able to convert any of those runs into a top finish either. He ran a relatively quiet race last week in Michigan, but that quiet afternoon provided the team its third top-10 finish this season. While that is a solid result for a team that has been taking baby steps back from deep disappointment just a few seasons ago, it isn't something that should encourage fantasy owners to consider starting the No. 31 this week. Certain tracks will be an attractive time to play Burton, but not this one.

Joey Logano -
Logano's ninth-place finish Sunday in Michigan was a solid effort from the driver and team continuing to rebuild after crew suspensions just a few weeks ago. The team's finishes took a turn for the better once the penalties had been served, and Logano is starting to make a claim for more fantasy starts. Unfortunately for the young driver, he does not a great record at the California track we visit this week. His average finish in his last four Sonoma runs is 17.0, which does not inspire confidence for fantasy owners. While Logano is capable of putting in a top performance this week, others have a greater likelihood of success, and fantasy owners should consider them ahead of the No. 22.

Paul Menard -
While Menard has been making strides forward on ovals the last season or two he hasn't accomplished the same on the road courses. He started the 2013 season strongly, but has faded a bit since. His last five Sonoma efforts produced an average finish of 22.8 with no top finishes. He finished 14th Sunday in Michigan, which is an acceptable result for the team after consecutive finishes 20th or worse, but not what he has shown he is capable of. Menard owns four top-10 finishes this season, but this isn't a week when he would be expected to score his fifth. Menard's past Sonoma results serve as a warning to fantasy owners. This driver is best played on ovals, not the road course in Sonoma.