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NASCAR Barometer: Kenseth Looking Strong

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.

Rarely does the news during the week outshine what takes place on track, but last week was one of note for NASCAR. After finding multiple competitors guilty of colluding to influence the results of the Richmond race two weeks ago, NASCAR made plenty of big decisions. Martin Truex Jr. was removed from the Chase for the Championship, and Michael Waltrip Racing received plenty of discipline. All of the team's crew chiefs are on probation, while Penske Racing and Furniture Row Racing were also caught up in the decisions. As a result, this year's Chase has 13 competitors instead of the intended 12, Jeff Gordon being the beneficiary.

After all the talk it was time to race, but not before rain delayed the festivities. After an hour delay, Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway finally got under way and with it the Chase. The early miles saw a split of strategies between two- and four-tire stops in an effort to gain track position. All was running smoothly until the rain returned and the race was halted.

The track was thoroughly soaked, and only after a delay did the track dryers get to work. More than five hours after the race was paused and the weather finally had its say, the race restarted under the lights.

Kenseth led before the beak for rain, and worked his way forward again after the restart. He led the most laps, and held off Kyle Busch for his first victory at the track, and the first win of the 2013 Chase for the Championship.

Only nine races remain to decide who will hoist this year's Sprint Cup, and Kenseth looks strong. Kyle Busch also turned in a top performance, finishing less than a second behind Kenseth in Chicago.

UPGRADE

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth started his first Chase with Joe Gibbs Racing on the perfect foot Sunday. The driver having a knockout first season with his new team scored the victory and led the most laps of the rain-delayed race. He is now eight points atop the standings, clear of Kyle Busch. Kenseth has two top-10 finishes from the last five races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and an average finish of 12.4 in that time. Kenseth has been very impressive this season, and now that the Chase is under way, he'll be looking for more. Fantasy players should be able to count on relatively consistent top finishes from Kenseth for the remaining races this season.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon got a boost before last week's race that put him into the Chase after NASCAR discovered collusion between Penske Racing and Furniture Row Racing. That boost probably isn't the ideal way Gordon wanted to get into this year's Chase, but the lift comes just in time for one his best tracks, New Hampshire. His average finish of 6.8 in the last five races is the best of any driver in that same time. His sixth-place finish Sunday night moved him six places up the Chase standings to seventh, 24 points behind leader Kenseth. While Gordon may not be as hot as Kenseth has been this season, there are certain tracks where he is known to perform, and Chicagoland is one of those confident choices.

Denny Hamlin -
Sunday was another disastrous race to add to Hamlin's 2013 woes. His engine gave up, and he ended his night just 20 laps shy of completing the full distance. This season has been one to forget for the No. 11 team, and Hamlin will be looking for some bright moments before packing it up for the off season. One win and three top-5s in the last five New Hampshire races help Hamlin to an average finish of 11.2, though. While Hamlin's 2013 season has been terrible, this week may be one where he can take a positive away from the trauma. Many expected Hamlin to be in the Chase at this point, but this could be a week when he competes as though he is in it with a shot.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne's New Hampshire record in the last five tries is second only to Gordon. His average finish is 7.6, and includes a win with three top-10s. He raced home to a 12th place finish Sunday, and didn't lead any laps. While it may not have been a result to write home about, it did move Kahne one spot further north in the Chase standings to 10th. Kahne is making good use of his Hendrick Motorsports team, but could use just a little more time with the side to move toward a bit more consistency. His New Hampshire record gives fantasy players a solid option this week for a confident selection.

Brad Keselowski -
Who would have thought that the 2012 series champion would not be in the following year's Chase to defend his title? Not many, but that is exactly the position Keselowski is in now. If he had a point to prove Sunday, the first race of the Chase, he did a decent job of it. The No. 2 car led two laps and finished seventh to claim his 11th top-10 of the season. Additionally, four top-10 finishes in the last five New Hampshire races is an excellent resume to carry into this week's event. Keselowski's average finish in that time is 10.4, and includes just one finish off of the lead lap. This should be a week fantasy players can look to the champion for a solid pick.

DOWNGRADE

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Starting the Chase with an engine failure was not what the No. 88 team hoped for Sunday. Earnhardt fell four positions to the bottom of the standings for the 13 Chase drivers. The failure was the team's third official failure of the season, and it came at arguably the worst time. Earnhardt's New Hampshire statistics aren't fantastic either. One top-5 is the best result he can claim in the last five races there, and an average finish of 12.6. That isn't bad, but when you consider the poor race the team had in Chicago, the waters get a bit murkier. The team will be looking to fight back strongly and salvage championship hopes, but the picture is bleak.

Martin Truex Jr. -
After getting removed from the Chase by an officiating decision, Truex must be frustrated. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver has just one top-10 finish in the last five races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. His average finish in that time is 13.6, despite finishing on the lead lap each of those tries. The hit in momentum from being booted out of the running midweek flowed through Sunday's event as well. Truex finished 18th, and never really made an impact among the leaders. Who knows if the decisions last week played any role in the lackluster performance, but they certainly didn't help things. Truex could still bounce back this season, but it may be best to avoid him for the moment.

Kyle Busch -
Busch led the most laps in Sunday's race besides Matt Kenseth. It was a strong opening salvo for his championship run, and this could be the year Busch puts everything together when it really matters. History tells us that Busch struggles with consistency, though, especially in the Chase. His lone top-5 result in the last five New Hampshire races is not enough of a lift to make Busch a confident selection this week given that knowledge. His average finish in that time is 18.6 and only includes three lead lap finishes. Busch is definitely a driver to pay attention to this week, but there appear to be safer alternatives available.

Kurt Busch -
Fourth-place in Sunday's rain-interrupted kick off to the Chase is a solid effort from Busch. He is a lame duck with Furniture Row Racing, but he accomplished his target of getting in the championship hunt, and is now looking to etch a win in the bedpost before departing for Stewart-HAAS Racing in 2014. Both Busch brothers have had a difficult time at this week's race through the past few seasons, though. Kurt only has one top-10 finish in his last five tries here, and that result was his only lead lap finish in that span, coming in 2011. Like his brother, this week may be one to leave Busch reserve to see how consistent he can be with everything on the line.

Ryan Newman -
Newman is another driver caught in the swirl of officiating last week. He does find himself in the Chase, however, and even managed to claim a top-10 in the first of 10 rounds. That result moved him up four places in the standings to eighth. Despite claiming a win in a controversial finish in 2011, Newman hasn't had the best run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway since. He crashed out of the spring event earlier this season, and only has an average finish of 17.0 in the last five races there. Newman's string of three top-10 finishes in the last three races is the most he has been able to put together all season, and that streak looks likely to end this week.

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