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NASCAR Barometer: Kenseth Eyes the Chase

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.

Bristol Motor Speedway produced all of its usual excitement Saturday night. There were mechanical issues, pit road strategy and even some fights afterward. The short track never fails to build up tension in the run in to the Chase for the Championship.

Clint Bowyer looked like he would be the one to beat early in the running, but contact with a lapped car dropped him well down the order. It was up to Matt Kenseth to take the bull by the horns in the closing segments, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did just that. Kenseth notched his fifth win of the season, his most since 2002.

As the Chase gets closer, drivers will start to feel the stress. Discovering who will crack and who will rise to the challenge is what makes these last few races interesting.

This week's test is Atlanta Motor Speedway, where speeds are high and teams that prepare their cars effectively for a 1.5-mile oval succeed. This race requires a car that can adjust from day into night, often starting neutral to follow the track as the night reduces temperature. A fair dose of pit strategy and mechanical reliability will undoubtedly become a factor.

UPGRADE

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has a strong Atlanta resume. His last five races at the track netted an 8.6 average finish with a top-5 and three top-10s. This driver has been one of the focal points throughout 2013, truly coming to the fore with his new team. Kenseth won another race Saturday night in Bristol, and that guaranteed himself a spot in this year's Chase for the Championship. This will be his first run at a title with Joe Gibbs Racing, and many wouldn't be surprised if he captured the ultimate prize. He overcame a pit road speeding penalty at about mid distance Saturday, and used his car's dominance to persevere and claim victory, like much of the season to date for this potent combination.

Joey Logano -
Just one top-10 finish in the last five Atlanta races indicates that Logano has struggled at the track. His average finish of 25.2 in that time confirms his troubles. Add zero DNFs to the mix and you see a driver who has not had the greatest of runs at Atlanta. On the flip side, though, Logano battled back to finish fourth in Bristol Saturday night. That effort gave him his seventh top-5 of the season and his fifth consecutive top-10 finish. As much as Logano has had going against him in some recent outings, the young driver has overcome and added top finishes to his scorecard. Logano is a driver on his way forward, which fantasy owners should pay attention to.

Kevin Harvick -
Returning to the scene of one of his most memorable victories, Harvick comes to Atlanta as a top choice, which is typical for the Californian. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 11.2, scoring two top-5s and four top-10s in that span. His temper boiled over last week, which is expected from Harvick when visiting Bristol. Unfortunately, his race was ruined when Denny Hamlin cut a tire in front and washed up into the wall. Harvick was stuck in between the two and finished 34th as a result. The No. 29 still sits fourth in points and should bounce back quickly this week. The Richard Childress Racing driver is looking to end his tenure with the team on a high note; Atlanta is a place he could do just that.

Brian Vickers -
Two top-10 finishes in his last three Atlanta starts gives Vickers an 8.3 average finish. Add those stats to the superb effort he put forth while driving the No. 55 car this year and you have a top fantasy choice this week. He knows this car and team is his alone for 2014 and is now laying groundwork to get next season off to a strong start. He seemed to be around almost every incident Saturday in Bristol, but managed to pick his way through to finish fourth, his second top-5 finish in 10 starts this season. Fantasy owners looking for a driver with momentum behind him should look no further than Vickers in Atlanta.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
While he may be out of the seat for 2014, Montoya is still racing for a job next season. It remains to be seen if he'll find one in Sprint Cup, but if there were a track where he can turn some heads, Atlanta would be it. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 10.2, including two top-5s and three top-10s. His car Saturday night in Bristol was strong, but he wasn't able to completely deliver the goods. His third-place finish wasn't a win, but it was the Colombian's fourth top-5 finish of the season. That momentum to inspire Montoya to another good fantasy run next week in Atlanta as he auditions his talents for a ride somewhere next season.

DOWNGRADE


Martin Truex Jr. -
Although Truex has had some success recently, Atlanta has posed some trouble for him. The last five races at the track have generated just one top-10 result and a 16.6 average finish. He was running at the front of the field Saturday night before things went awry for the No. 56 team. He finished 35th after getting caught up in a late wreck that destroyed Truex's Toyota. Denny Hamlin cut a tire, and washed up the banking, taking out Kevin Harvick and collecting Truex in the melee. The real disappointment was that Truex had been racing in a position that would have put him in contention for a Chase spot, but is now only 14th in points and a rough proposition this week.

Clint Bowyer -
With just two lead-lap finishes in the last five Atlanta races, Bowyer is a gamble for fantasy rosters this week. One of those two finishes generated a top-10, but his average finish in the span is disappointing at 24.4. He was in the lead early Saturday night, but while lapping cars he was tapped from behind and spun. The incident put Bowyer behind the competition, but not out of the race. Had that accident not occurred, who could say what Bowyer would have accomplished? Instead, he finished 14th and locked himself into a Chase position. It wasn't a perfect night, and this team will now begin focusing on the 10-race Chase format.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards suffered a valve failure Saturday night in Bristol, and ended up behind the wall with more than 100 laps remaining and smoke pouring from him exhaust. The 39th-place finish he was credited with was not what the team needed. With two top-5s in the last five Atlanta races one would think that Edwards would be a top choice this week, however his average finish is only 23.8, and those top-5s were his only finishes on the lead lap in that time. To say he has been inconsistent in Atlanta is an understatement. While he may pose some upside potential, his two DNFs in that span at Atlanta and the DNF in Bristol make him a very big gamble this week.

Ryan Newman -
Newman is out of a ride at season's end, and bad luck didn't help him get the attention of prospective employers Saturday night. His 21st-place finish was not ideal, and his hopes for the Chase lay in a wild card spot at the moment. Saturday night's result was Newman's third straight finish outside the top 10. On a night where a few Chase contenders struggled, Newman failed to capitalize. He'll have to do more to book his position in the Chase, but he will need to overcome his past results in Atlanta first. His average finish of 17.8 from the last five Atlanta runs makes Newman a less than attractive fantasy play this week, especially considering last week's result.

Jimmie Johnson -
It seems as though Johnson's luck is at a low point. He struggled Saturday night with troubles in Bristol, finishing 36th. The difficulties made it two finishes worse than 30th in a row for Johnson, the first time this season that has happened to the five-time champion. Johnson's two top-10 finishes in the last five Atlanta races give him an average finish of 17.4, despite a 10.4 average start. He finished on the lead lap three of those five tries and failed to finish once. Johnson is not one to count out, ever, but as he focuses on building momentum for the Chase, this week may be one to not expect the utter domination we're used to seeing from this team.