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NASCAR Barometer: King of Indy

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.

In two weeks the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series turns its attention toward the famed and historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 400-mile race at the Brickyard is one of the handful of races every driver longs to add to his list of victories, and a special aura follows drivers who win at the oval, making them legends.

Last week the series visited New Hampshire International Speedway, where teams had to make the right calls all afternoon to remain at the head of the field. From a cloudy start, to a sunny and slick track later in the race, New Hampshire's summer stop on the schedule challenged teams consistently throughout the 301 laps, and even added a green-white-checkered finish to the mix to help add even more drama to an already frantic race.

When all was said and done, part-time driver Brian Vickers took the win for Michael Waltrip Racing, claiming victory for the car that is piloted by no less than three drivers throughout the 2013 season. As Vickers searches for a full-time return to the series, he did his chances a great service by winning Sunday in New Hampshire.

The coming race at Indianapolis presents an entirely different challenge, though. The flat, 90-degree turns force teams to set a car up perfectly. With each setup, however, there must remain a degree of flexibility. This racetrack can change dramatically with the weather and temperature, and a well-handling chassis can soon become a handful if not taken care of promptly. Hendrick Motorsports has often been strong at the 2.5-mile oval, but that doesn't mean others haven't come to the fore as well.

UPGRADE

Brian Vickers -
The part-time driver who has struggled to work his way back into Sprint Cup full time got the job done Sunday in New Hampshire. Vickers kept his car in position among the leaders all afternoon and took the jump on the final green-white-checkered restart to claim Sunday's victory. His Indianapolis record isn't a bad one either. Due to his part-time status and health issues, Vickers has only contested three of the last five Brickyard races, but he scored a top-5 and amassed an average finish of 20.7 in those tries. That isn't overly impressive, but when one considers Michael Waltrip Racing, and the strides forward that this team continues to make, you may have yourself a valuable fantasy option.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson was forced to start caboose on the field Sunday in Loudon, making his day extra difficult from the outset. He swiftly worked his way forward from the green flag, however, and wound up scoring a top-10 finish when the distance was completed. The effort was the hallmark of this championship team, and Johnson will feel like he won the race despite not cracking the top 5. Winning three of the last five races at the Brickyard, Johnson could be called NASCAR's king of Indianapolis. Coming off of such an inspiring and trying week as Loudon, Johnson is poised for yet another dominant run in Indianapolis, and fantasy owners should be excited to play him again if they can.

Tony Stewart -
It is hard to count out Stewart when he races in his home state. The Hoosier native claims a 9.4 average finish in the last five Brickyard races and scored two top-5s and four top-10s in that span. "Smoke" has an affinity for this unique oval, and he rarely fails to turn in a top performance when he visits. In contention for the win until a late restart last Sunday, Stewart may have only lost last week's race in New Hampshire due to lack of fuel. Stewart continues to live up to his billing as a driver who comes alive in the summer, and fantasy owners would do wise to ride this wave until it breaks.

Greg Biffle -
He may not have a Brickyard victory to his credit, but Biffle hasn't finished outside of the top 10 at the track since 2007 when he finished 15th. Biffle's average finish in the last five Indianapolis races is 5.0, which is the best among drivers who have taken part in each the last five Brickyard events. He had a rather average afternoon in New England last week, finishing 15th on the green-white-checkered finish. Still, that doesn't mean that this driver can't come to the fore when the chips are on the table. Biffle's record at Indianapolis makes him a relatively safe choice this week for fantasy rosters.

Jamie McMurray -
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing may still be working to discover consistency, but they also continue to show strength on some tracks. One place where that strength could become evident is Indianapolis Motor Speedway. McMurray is one of only three drivers to win at the track in the last five seasons, and his average finish through that time is impressive at 10.8. Owning two top-10 finishes in addition to that win makes McMurray a driver with upside. The No. 1 team finished 12th Sunday in Loudon, which was an average result, and while that finish won't give it a boost through the off week, Indianapolis is a place McMurray comes to life. Despite the ups and downs of 2013, McMurray is one to look at this week.

Brad Keselowski -
A special mention in the Upgrade column goes out this week to Keselowski. The reigning champion has been in the basement much of this season, and hadn't finished in the top 10 since early June. All that changed Sunday when "Kez" and team put together a top machine and ran well all afternoon in Loudon. The fourth-place finish may be the monkey off the No. 2 team's back, and we will keep a close eye on him this week to see if things continue to improve for the defending champion.

DOWNGRADE

Ryan Newman -
Newman is another Indiana native looking forward to the race at the Brickyard. Unfortunately, Newman doesn't have the momentum on his side that team owner Tony Stewart has. Just one top-10 finish in the last five races does not make Newman a driver on a strong run. Newman has only had one span of consecutive top-10 finishes so far this season as the team continually searches for consistency. While he may have a decent average finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Newman has only managed to finish in the top-10 once in the last five tries there. His average result from the last five Brickyard events is 12.6. Newman could be worth a gamble this week, but the upside isn't as great as some other options.

Denny Hamlin -
As if things weren't bad enough for Hamlin, a deflated right-front tire eliminated his chances for a decent finish last week while fighting to get back on the lead lap. Things just keep going from bad to worse for this team, which is now virtually eliminated from any chance at making this season's Chase for the Championship. At Indianapolis, Hamlin's finish statistics are rather mediocre as well. One top-5 and two top-10s push his average result to 17.0 in the last five races. Everyone is entitled to a slump, and this is certainly Hamlin's. It remains to be seen how quickly the team will work its way out of the funk, but fantasy owners would be wise to steer clear until that corner is turned.

Joey Logano -
Logano has only been in Sprint Cup long enough to race four times at Indianapolis, and he hasn't taken to the track like he probably had hoped. His average finish is 19.8 at the oval, though he did tally a top-10 finish. The trouble that Logano experienced early last weekend in Loudon marked the second week in a row without a clean race for the young driver. He spun into the wall Sunday and the resulting damage forced him into the garage to make repairs, putting him well behind the competition. He finished 40th when all was said and done and that simply is not good enough for this team. The consistent finishes Logano was scoring now resemble more of a roller coaster, which is not what fantasy owners want to see.

Kurt Busch -
Statistics tend to tell a story, and Busch won't like the story his statistics in the last five races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway tell. His average finish in the last five races there is 26.8, netting just a single top-10 result. He failed to finish one of those races and missed finishing on the lead lap three of five times. A spin and resulting crash with Ryan Newman past the midpoint of Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301 dented Busch's charge up the point standings. He was able to continue in the race, but took a step backward from his recent rise. Busch has had a tremendous season with Furniture Row Racing so far in 2013, but consistently finishing is something that still requires work.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
It would be great to see a driver win the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400, but the only driver currently capable of pulling off the feat hasn't fared as well at the track in NASCAR as he did in IndyCar. Montoya has no top finishes in the last five NASCAR Brickyard races, and his average finish is just 26.2 through the same period. Making things doubly difficult is that Montoya is coming off of yet another finish outside of the top 10. In fact, the Colombian hasn't added a top-10 finish to his record since early June when he finished second in the FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is making visible progress, but Montoya appears to have stalled.