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NASCAR Barometer: Busch Burns Bright

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.

Sparks fly when the NASCAR Sprint Cup regulars turn right in addition to left, and Watkins Glen International provided just that last week.

The predicted dominance of Marcos Ambrose was to be, and not. In the end it was Kyle Busch who claimed his second Sprint Cup victory at the upstate New York track. Ambrose led for much of the race, but was shuffled backward due to caution periods and pit strategy. Busch capitalized on the slip, and he held off Brad Keselowski for Sunday's win.

The weekend showed yet again that the Sprint Cup regulars have stepped up to the competition, and are no longer ones to be walked over when the series visits a road course.

This week, we head back to the ovals, which dominate the schedule. Roush Fenway Racing, in fact, has dominated this oval. A Roush or Hendrick Motorsports driver typically wins at Michigan International Speedway, but with Hendrick faltering at Watkins Glen, the Upgrade column is dominated by Roush options. Fantasy owners will have a tough selection this week, but sometimes past results can predict future returns.

UPGRADE

Kyle Busch -
Busch tried to start last weekend strongly, but missed a chance at yet another Watkins Glen win in the first turn of the NASCAR Nationwide series race. He rebounded quickly, though, with a solid effort Sunday in his Sprint Cup car. He overtook the clear-cut favorite Sunday to claim another road course win in the Sprint Cup in an impressive display through the final laps of Sunday's race. Things look even brighter this week at Michigan, too. His win and three top-5s from the last five Michigan events put him very close to the top of active drivers in the same period at the track. His average finish in that time is 10.6, with just one finish off the lead lap.

Carl Edwards -
Despite not leading last week, Edwards had a very strong weekend at Watkins Glen. He scored yet another top-5 and will carry a ton of momentum forward to Michigan this week. One top-5 and three top-10s from his last five Michigan races indicate that he should put the momentum from last week's run to good use as well. His average finish in the last five Michigan events is 13.2, with just one result outside the lead lap. Edwards has the strong Ford power under his hood with Roush Fenway Racing and could be a force to be reckoned with this weekend in Michigan, where teammate Greg Biffle picked up the win in June.

Greg Biffle -
After scoring two wins in the last five races at Michigan International Speedway it would be a mistake not to consider Biffle for a fantasy start this week. His average finish at the track in those five races is 8.2, and Biffle is always one to watch at the sister tracks of Michigan and California. He didn't have a noteworthy race last week at Watkins Glen, finishing 16th, but Biffle isn't noted for his road-racing prowess. Coming through last weekend unscathed may ne enough of a boost to push Biffle to another top results this week. This week's circuit is one of Roush Fenway Racing, and Biffle's, best so fantasy owners should be able to consider playing the No. 16 without much risk.

Clint Bowyer -
Only one driver finished in the top 10 in each of the last five Michigan races - Bowyer, who claims a 7.4 average result at the track in that span. He is second only to Jimmie Johnson in the points in 2013, which isn't terribly surprising considering how well he and Michael Waltrip Racing finished last season in the championship standings. Bowyer has consistently put his MWR equipment in the front of the standings and is doing so again this year. Racing to his 12th top-10 of the season, Bowyer is on the verge of clinching a berth in the Chase, and that could be enough motivation to put in yet another top performance this week from the No. 15 team.

Brad Keselowski -
Watkins Glen was a good effort from Keselowski last week. Additionally, his Michigan record is stout. In the last five races at the oval he finished an average of 11.0, with no finishes off of the lead lap. He scored two top-5s in those five tries and will carry the momentum from last week's strong run forward to Michigan. The second-place finish Sunday at Watkins Glen was his seventh top-5 finish of the season, and his second top-10 in a row. Keselowski hasn't had the easiest path to defending his 2012 Sprint Cup championship, but he has certainly been able to overcome the hurdles that have gotten in his way. Keselowski is an attractive play this week in the backyard of his manufacturer.

DOWNGRADE

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin's name in the Downgrade column is becoming the norm, unfortunately. The star driver has taken a severe dip in form since returning from a broken back and has seriously struggled since that return. He barely managed a top-20 result Sunday at Watkins Glen, finishing 19th, just in under the wire. His results at Michigan haven't been the best either, and his results after winning at Michigan in June 2011 include a best result of 11th. His average finish in the last five Michigan events is 22.2, failing to finish on the lead laps three of those five tries. Hamlin has simply not returned to the form he is accustomed, and fantasy owners need to wait until he does.

Kurt Busch -
While he demonstrates that he could bring his small team to the fore of the Sprint Cup at times, Busch has failed to seal the deal at Michigan. His main accomplishment in the last five races at the track is a pole, which he landed in the June 2011 edition of the race. Outside that prize his average finish at the track in the last five tries is 28.0. The telling sign that he might not be the best fantasy option this week is that he finished on the lead lap just once in those last five tries. While he has managed to outperform expectations much of 2013 the risks still remain, and his 35th-place finish in the last Michigan race means he is a risky option at best this week.

Joey Logano -
Logano has finished in the top-10 at Michigan only once in his last five tries and failed to finish on the lead lap twice in the same period. His average finish in that time is 22.8 and is at the wrong end of the statistics table. Logano scored a top-10 in the June Michigan race, and his third consecutive top-10 last week in Watkins Glen, but doesn't come without risk this week. His ninth-place Michigan effort in June indicates that he could be an option worth considering this week, but his results suggest that he may disappoint. Logano hasn't scored more than three consecutive top-10s so far this season, which indicates this week could be one on the downside for the No. 22.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon should have collected valuable points last week to this season's Chase, on the cusp of landing one of those positions. Instead, Gordon lost control heading into the back straight and crashed, ending his day on the back of a tow truck. He had been on a roll with three consecutive top-10 finishes before last weekend, but that streak came to an emphatic end. His two top-10 finishes in the past five Michigan races don't help his average finish any higher than 19.2. He failed to finish on the lead lap twice in that time, ranking 39th in June due to an accident. Gordon needs to turn things around quickly if he wants a Chase spot.

Tony Stewart -
The season of woe is now essentially over for Stewart. While racing a sprint car before last week's Watkins Glen event, he hit a lapped car and broke his leg in multiple places. Two surgeries later, he isn't expected to be back in the car for at least a month, and any chance of making the Chase is now gone. The team hasn't named a permanent replacement, though Max Papis substituted for the team on last week's road course. Stewart failed to score as many victories as was expected early this season, and while the team was improving; it still didn't demonstrate the consistent competitiveness that many expected to see. Stewart's season is effectively over and may not be a viable fantasy option again until next year.

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