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NASCAR Barometer: Next Stop, Kentucky

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.

Sonoma Raceway produced its usual share of fireworks Sunday afternoon. The natural terrain circuit always challenges the limits of both driver and car, and that was the case again Sunday as both driver and car struggled to keep pace with competition. A handful of teams encountered trouble in the early going, some battled their way back, others were left by the wayside.

Martin Truex Jr. found himself pulling away from the rest of the leaders in the closing laps, though. While Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and others with speedy machines were closing, there were simply not enough miles or cautions to catch Truex, who ran away to victory. The win was a great result for the team, which has been on the cusp of victory multiple times this season.

After a week of road-course racing, the series looks to Kentucky Speedway. This is another 1.5-mile oval, but the Sprint Cup circus has only raced on it twice. However, the traditional oval configuration of the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule can give some hints as to who might be a driver to watch this week, despite the limited history of results on this particular circuit.

UPGRADE

Martin Truex Jr. -
The team and driver that have been knocking on the door of Victory Lane most of the season finally kicked the door down in Sonoma. Truex won his first road-course race and captured his second career Sprint Cup Series win. It feels like the floodgates will open with this win considering how strong Truex and his teammates have been at various tracks this season. At Kentucky his career average finish is 13.0 with a top-10 finish in the bag. Michael Waltrip Racing is a big player on the scene in this series now, and Truex proved Sunday he is one more driver from that stable to whom the rest of the competition must pay attention.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon was put behind the game early in Sunday's race, but battled mightily to come back and finish in the top 5 when all was said and done. It was a brilliant performance from the No. 24, and that high should carry forward to this week, on another track where Gordon has a great record. His average result from the two Kentucky races run to date is 7.5 with a top-5 finish and another top-10. At Sonoma, Hendrick Motorsports certainly bounced back from their terrible outing at Michigan International Speedway. Almost every car endured trouble there, but Gordon was leading the charge ahead for the team in Sonoma. The veteran driver makes for a secure selection this week.

Jimmie Johnson -
Running consistently and competitively throughout the race in Sonoma on Sunday gave Johnson his 10th top-10 finish of the season. Johnson's Championship Chase success has come largely on the fact that he runs very well on the 1.5-mile ovals that make up the majority of the Sprint Cup schedule. Luckily for him, the series returns to that track configuration this week. Only five Sprint Cup drivers have finished both races held at Kentucky Speedway in the top 10. Johnson is one, claiming a 4.5 average result in his two tries. Those results are indicative of his strength on those types of tracks and make Johnson a driver that fantasy owners have to consider this week.

Kurt Busch -
Busch battled the odds and himself last Sunday to work his way into an unlikely top-5 finish at Sonoma. The No. 78 was penalized for speeding in pit lane early in Sunday's race, and then was penalized again when he sped while serving his initial penalty. The drama put him a lap down from which he worked his way back, passing everyone on his way forward to the fourth position when the checkered flag waved. Sunday was another example of the great combination of Busch and Furniture Row Racing. Last week's result and Busch's 14.0 average Kentucky finish make him a good fantasy option this week, and it is only a matter of time before he is in Victory Lane.

Matt Kenseth -
Were it not for saving some fuel and the handling of the car sliding away in the closing miles, we may have heard more from Kenseth last week in Sonoma. He finished 19th when the day ended, but that number was not representative of what the team was capable of that afternoon. Still, one slightly off week from the No. 20 team doesn't mean disaster is on the horizon. While he can't claim a top-5 result at Kentucky yet, Kenseth does belong to the small club of drivers who own two top-10s in two tries at the track. His 6.5 average result suggests he may be in line to claim that first top-5 at the track this week with Joe Gibbs Racing power under his hood.

DOWNGRADE

Juan Pablo Montoya -
After having one of the race's fastest cars Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, Montoya fell down the order and ultimately ran out of fuel on the final lap. Sonoma was a place Montoya needed to post a top result, if not a victory, and he failed to do that. This season is showing some signs of life from the team that has struggled the last few years, but consistency isn't there yet and the team is failing to capitalize on the moments it has an advantage. The Colombian's average finish in two Kentucky Speedway races is 14.5 with no top-10s. Things are starting to go the right direction, but the up-and-down nature of the team's results make fantasy consideration too risky.

Greg Biffle -
Despite running at the finish of both Sprint Cup races at Kentucky Speedway, Biffle has yet to finish in the top-10. His average finish in those tries is 21.0. Biffle looked like a strong contender for success last week in Sonoma after putting together back-to-back top-5 finishes, including a win, in the two races leading to Sonoma. He didn't quite live up to that potential, but a confident top-10 finish is a good way to back up his first win of the season. Still, Biffle hasn't shown us much at Kentucky and has been hit or miss on 1.5-mile ovals so far this season. That lack of consistency this season is the main thing holding Biffle back from an Upgrade this week.

Kyle Busch -
Last week's race in Sonoma was one that Busch would probably like to forget. A strong car and the possibility of a top result was put in the garbage bin after contact and additional problems that forced him to fall well behind the leaders. The day ended with him finishing 35th, which is an especially bitter pill to swallow after running a tally of three consecutive top-10s prior to last weekend. He hopes to move on quickly from that disappointment this week, at a Kentucky track where he is one of just a handful of drivers to score top-10s in both Sprint Cup races held there. Things could perk up this week for the No. 18, but a downward trajectory is tough to turn around.

Denny Hamlin -
If it weren't for bad luck, Hamlin would have no luck at all the last few weeks. Sunday at Sonoma competitor Tony Stewart punted Hamlin off track, damaging his car and losing track position due to the contact. In the three races leading up to Sonoma, Hamlin finished 30th or worse twice. To make the 2013 Chase for the Championship Hamlin needs to claw his way back into the top 20 in points, scoring wins while doing so. That effort would only get him a chance at a wild-card spot, but even that doesn't look likely now. Hamlin and team will look to salvage anything they can from this season, and build momentum into the offseason.

Jamie McMurray -
After scoring the pole position for last week's race, McMurray encountered tire problems and wound up finishing deep down the running order. He has three top-10 finishes this season, and should have tallied another last week. Instead, he continued his run of finishes outside the top 10 that started immediately following the All-Star race. Small things are starting to go the right direction for Earnhardt Ganassi racing, but overall results have yet to really start coming the team's way. McMurray's average finish at Kentucky is 25.5, with no top-10s and one finish off the lead lap. The time may be drawing near to look at the No. 1 for fantasy consideration, but this is not the week.