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NASCAR Barometer: Let the Chase Begin

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.

The final caution of Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 400 raised many questions, and even had NASCAR reviewing it the next day. Carl Edwards used that restart to drive away from the competition and claim his second win of the season, but Paul Menard was the driver who should have controlled that return to green. He didn't, and that is where the initial controversy originated. That wasn't the only question to the finish, though. NASCAR looked into the incident that brought out that final caution when Clint Bowyer spun. Was that spin an effort from Michael Waltrip Racing to orchestrate a Chase berth for Martin Truex Jr.?

Saturday night's fireworks show was the final race before the 10-race Chase for the Championship kicks off at Chicagoland Speedway this week. When the Chase kicks off you can usually count on Jimmie Johnson moving to the fore the next few weeks, though there is always at least another competitor who makes a strong run, as Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart have in recent seasons.

UPGRADE

Carl Edwards -
Edwards had the strongest car in the closing miles of Saturday's race. He leveraged track position gained from a final pit stop under caution to challenge Menard on the final restart. Edwards was the one who drove away and claimed a controversial victory to head into the first of 10 Chase races on a high note. Two top-10 finishes in the last five Chicagoland races give Edwards an average finish of 14.2 in that time. He finished on the lead lap three of those tries, which could have put him in the Downgrade column, but Saturday's performance in Richmond gives him some momentum for a run at the championship, which he seems determined to win.

Kyle Busch -
Busch's night started well in Richmond, but it didn't end terribly well. The early long runs worked well for Busch, running in the top five. When all was said and done, though, he had dropped deep in the order. Busch won the 2008 edition of this week's race from pole and scored one top-10 in the four races there since. His five-race finishing average at the track is 15.4. This could be the year that Busch is able to live up to expectations and make a strong run at the Chase. He is known as a driver who can go on a hot streak, and two wins from the five races leading to the start of the Chase might be enough to put that streak in motion.

Ryan Newman -
Saturday night's finish in Richmond gave Newman back-to-back top-5 finishes. He may not be in the Chase, but Newman is working hard to make his talents visible since he is searching for a new team for 2014. Once it was announced he would be leaving Stewart-HAAS he came out and won the Brickyard 400, a big victory for the Indiana native. Things may get better this week after losing out on the Chase. Chicagoland has been kind to Newman the last five events. His average finish in that time is 10.2, and only once did he finish outside the top 10. Newman, despite being out of a drive, is in a career-defining stretch of races and is performing, which should impress fantasy owners.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne's 7.8 average finish in the last five Chicagoland Speedway races is one of the best in the field. He didn't finish off of the lead lap in that span and collected two top-5s and three top-10s. He scored a 14th-place result Saturday night in Richmond, which is not what he had hoped, but he does have two top-10 finishes in the last five races. While it may not have been the finish he wanted, Kahne was able to claim a wild-card entry to the season-ending Chase, and he'll run for the championship this season. Making the 10-race playoff gives Kahne a boost, and he'll do everything he can to get off on the right foot.

Brian Vickers -
Saturday night's effort in Richmond wasn't the most impressive for Vickers and the team he'll be with in 2014. While he finished a lap down Saturday, he is still on a run of races with that includes three top-10 finishes in the last five races. He is a part-time driver this season and is working to build rapport with his new co-workers. His victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July signaled his return to the Sprint Cup scene after a handful of years where he didn't know if he would make the climb back to the top. Vickers landed two top-10 finishes in his last three Chicagoland races, and the average finish from that time is 8.7, and fantasy racers like to see averages like that.

DOWNGRADE

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is on a downswing. With Saturday's myriad troubles in Richmond, Johnson has gone four consecutive races outside the top 20. In fact, he has only scored one top-10 finish in the last six races, and recorded one DNF. Now that the Chase is under way, heads will turn to the team that has performed the best since its inception, the No. 48. These are the races Johnson has been preparing for, and his 9.4 average finish in the last five Chicagoland races could make him a top fantasy selection this week. Fantasy owners should be a little wary, though, given his form heading into the 10 most important races of any season.

Joey Logano -
Saturday night's race started poorly for Logano, as he struggled to find grip on the short track. It didn't end any better either. He finished the event 22nd, breaking a streak of six consecutive top-10 finishes. Is this the end of a run, or just a blip before a return to form? Just one top-10 finish in his four Chicagoland races doesn't push Logano's average finish higher than 15.0. He failed to finish on the lead lap twice in that span and recorded a DNF as well. While he has been one of the best in recent races, Logano may do well to simply get a decent race under his belt in Chicagoland to get his Chase effort rolling.

Kurt Busch -
Busch is another driver who hasn't quite gotten off the mark at Chicagoland the last few seasons. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 21.8, and he failed to finish on the lead lap in two of those tries. His lone top-10 at the track in that time isn't impressive enough to put him at the top of the order in fantasy rosters this week. He started Saturday's race in Richmond strongly, but lost five positions on an early pit stop, putting him in an early hole. Battling back to finish second earned him a position in the Chase, which is remarkable for his efforts with Furniture Row Racing this season. It has been a great season for Busch, but this week holds some questions.

Greg Biffle -
Despite having a relatively quiet season, Biffle heads into the Chase with a win. His last five races have granted him two top-10 finishes, and his average finish this season is 15.1. This week may be another one where Biffle scores another quiet result. He only finished on the lead lap twice in the last five Chicagoland races, which indicates that this track hasn't treated him very well recently. His average finish in that time is 21.8, which also includes a DNF. This week's circuit isn't an ideal one for the No. 16, which is a shame since it is the first race of the 10-race Chase. It is important to get off on the right foot when running for a championship, and Biffle isn't expected to make a splash.

Paul Menard -
One driver walking away from Richmond feeling hard done is Menard. The race's final restart was his to control, but it was Edwards who crossed the line first and streaked away to victory. Menard had done a wonderful job to put himself in a position to win, but it unfortunately wasn't to be. Just one top-10 finish at Chicagoland Speedway in his last five races there isn't enough to make fantasy owners believe that Menard can overcome the bitterness he tasted last week. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 21.2, and that simply isn't strong enough of a record to earn a spot on rosters this week.

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