RotoWire Partners

NASCAR Barometer: Now it's a Race

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.

Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway featured some of the longest green-flag stretches of the season. Drivers who started the race with a solid setup made ground on those who missed, and track position was key. Four drivers dominated the lead throughout the distance, but one dominated everyone.

Jimmie Johnson took the bull by the horns, led the most laps and claimed maximum points by winning, as well. The victory was his first of the Chase and narrows the point gap that was opened by Matt Kenseth in the first two Chase for the Championship races. While both drivers looked strong at various points Sunday afternoon, Kenseth simply did not have what it took to counter the powerful No. 48.

The fourth race in the Chase is at Kansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile tri-oval. Kenseth set the track record in qualifying in April en route to winning the race and could be a force to battle this week. As the races wind down, will it be a two-horse race between Johnson and Kenseth for the title, or will a newcomer force his way into the fold?

UPGRADE

Jimmie Johnson -
The fastest car was in the confident hands of Johnson on Sunday afternoon in Dover. The No. 48 chased down anyone who was in the lead and once out front took a solid command. Making all the right moves, Johnson maneuvered his car to its first Chase win of the season, narrowing the gap to Chase leader Matt Kenseth. Based on Johnson's Kansas record one would expect him to duke it out with Kenseth for the spoils this week. One win and three top-5s in the last five Kansas events put Johnson among the best in the statistics this week. His 4.6 average finish is second to Kenseth, but no less impressive than most tracks for the No. 48.

Matt Kenseth -
Similar to the opening two races of the 2013 Chase, Kenseth spent a fair amount of time in front of the rest of the field. He didn't have the pace of Johnson, who chased him down. Kenseth lost track position late in the running and only managed to finish seventh on the afternoon. While it wasn't the result the No. 20 was hoping for, the team's effort salvaged valuable points and maintained the championship lead. Kenseth's championship roll could continue this week, though. His average Kansas finish is the best in the field through the last five races at 3.2. With two wins out of those five tries, it would be foolish not to consider starting Kenseth this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Sunday produced one of the better results Earnhardt has seen in a while, and it came despite a major issue early in the running. Earnhardt missed pit road in the opening stages Sunday, which put him well behind. The team worked hard, though, and claimed a top-10 result for the side that continues to show painfully slow but steady improvement. With a top-5 and two top-10s in the last five Kansas races, Earnhardt could be in line for another solid performance this week. His 9.8 average finish from those five races comes from four lead-lap runs and gives fantasy owners some confidence that the No. 88 could back up last week's performance with another solid result this week.

Brad Keselowski -
Taking a win in the last five races run at Kansas Speedway helps Keselowski to an average result of 5.8. He hasn't finished off the lead laps in those races and has racked up two top-5s and four top-10s to boot. The No. 2 went into the garage early last week with trouble in the rear of the car. The car was dropping oil on the track, and there was little chance for the team to re-enter the fray. Keselowski himself said that he was burning through bad luck this season and would be back for 2014, but this week could give him some momentum to build from for next year. Kansas is one of his better tracks, and Keselowski is expected to be in the mix.

Paul Menard -
It isn't often when a driver who hasn't had his name called much finds his way into the Upgrade column. Menard finished 18th Sunday in Dover, which also isn't enough to make the difference to fantasy owners; however, there appears to be a bit more underneath the surface. Fantasy owners looking for a potential surprise this week should consider playing Menard. This driver scored two top-10 finishes in the last five Kansas races, three top-10s in the last six races and produced a 12.4 average finish. Each time he finished on the lead lap resulted in a top-10 finish. Menard may not be the one everyone turns to each week, but this is one where he should be in consideration.

DOWNGRADE

Mark Martin -
The sky looked to be the limit when Martin took over for the injured Tony Stewart. Unfortunately, last week showed the rewards wouldn't come so easily for the veteran. Multiple laps down to the leaders, Martin finished 19th in Sunday's Dover race. His Kansas statistics are suspect as well. Just two lead-lap finishes are all he clings to when combating his average finish of 19.4 in the last five Kansas races. One of those five events resulted in a DNF, and Martin has only scored one top-10 result in the last five races this season. This driver should have won a Daytona 500 by now, and probably a championship as well, but the results just haven't come his way. Martin isn't one to look to this week.

Kurt Busch -
Sunday was a disappointing day for Chase contender Busch. As the miles wound down, Busch found himself multiple laps behind the leaders with no hope of mounting a comeback. The excitement of contending for a championship in his final 10 races with Furniture Row Racing is slowly fading. Although he scored a pole in the June 2011 race at Kansas, Busch simply hasn't gotten the job done at the track. His average finish in the last five runs at the track is 15.8, with a best finish of ninth, which came from that pole effort. Outside of that day, Busch hasn't cracked the top 10 at the track and would do well to come away with one this week.

Joey Logano -
Another top-5 signals that Logano is finally coming of age. It took a switch of teams, and some run-ins with fellow competitors, but the No. 22 is starting to show that he does have talent and is beginning to figure out how to tap into it. While Logano has certainly come of age this season, there is a bit of trepidation when fantasy owners look to him this week. With no top finishes in his last five Kansas tries, Logano isn't one to expect much from this week. His average finish in that span is 25.0, with just one finish on the lead lap. While he may be a contender with Penske Racing in the coming seasons, he doesn't have the pace of Johnson or Kenseth, and this week may present more of a trial for Logano than most other weeks.

Kyle Busch -
Just one top-10 in the last five Kansas races doesn't help Busch's dismal average result at the track much. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 20.4, with two finishes more than a lap behind. A struggling right-rear tire in the middle of last week's race dropped Kyle down the running order and forced him to hang onto as much as he could with an ill handling car. That struggle didn't hold him back, though. He worked hard despite the adversity and held station in the top of the order. When all was said and done, Busch was classified as the fifth finisher, a good result for the aspiring champion.

Ryan Newman -
Despite coming home with another top-10 finish for the season, Newman ran a largely anonymous race Sunday at Dover International Speedway. He led six laps last Sunday and finished behind seven other Chase contenders. A top-10 result normally doesn't signal such malaise, but last week's effort was just that. There just isn't a spark with the driver in his last few races with Stewart-HAAS Racing, and the Indiana native, while a solid runner, isn't showing that he has the pedigree to take the big prize just yet. Newman hasn't managed to score a top finish in any of the last five Kansas races. His average finish in that span is 19.4, including two finishes a lap or more behind the leaders. All in all this would lower expectations for Newman this week.