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NASCAR Barometer: The Chase Revs Up

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 Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway brought with it a record number of cautions for the race. Incidents befell a handful of Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers, while the standings at the top tightened.

Kevin Harvick unloaded his car as one of the fastest, put it on pole position and ultimately took a hard-fought victory as well. Jimmie Johnson notched another top-5, avoided a last lap mechanical issue and cut his deficit to Matt Kenseth to just three points.

This week features one of NASCAR's fastest tracks, under the lights. Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of the hallmark tracks of the series, and it is entirely befitting that the track features a prominent role in the Chase. Harvick took the victory there in May's 600-mile race and will have all the momentum behind him this week as he tries to score another.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick scored his third win of the season Sunday at Kansas Speedway, notching his second top-10 finish in a row in the process. The No. 29 team had one of the fastest machines from the start of the weekend and put the chassis to good use by driving away from the competition in the closing laps of Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400. Charlotte has proven to be a good place for Harvick. His 6.4 average finish in the last five races at the track is among the best, and even includes one result where he didn't finish on the lead lap. Two wins in the last five and two other top-10s contributed to that average and makes him a respectable option this week.

Kurt Busch -
Busch put together another impressive run for his Furniture Row Racing team Sunday in Kansas. This driver is headed to yet another new team in 2014 but is giving his small team something to cheer about in 2013. He raced hard to a second-place finish with one of the best drives of the afternoon. His results as the season has wound down have given no reason to think that he can't better his 13.6 average finish in the last five Charlotte races next week. This driver has two top-5 Charlotte finishes in the last five races there, which is the ninth best of active drivers. Busch continues to defy the odds, and next week's race could offer more of the same for fantasy owners.

Denny Hamlin -
While there haven't been many times this season to play Hamlin with confidence, this could be one final chance for owners. Hamlin's 5.4 average Charlotte finish is the best among active drivers through the last five races at the track. To make the situation even more convincing, Hamlin is the only driver to have finished on the lead lap each of the last five races at the track. Sunday's race at Kansas was yet another disappointment for the No. 11 team. Their struggles have stretched on for quite some time, and Hamlin hasn't finished in the top 10 since the Party in the Poconos 400 race in June when he finished eighth. Hamlin is due for a top-10 this week.

Kasey Kahne -
While Sunday wasn't the greatest day for Kahne, he wasn't the lowest-finishing Chase driver, coming in 15th on a difficult afternoon. Kahne is starting to stretch his legs with Hendrick Motorsports and is expected to produce even better results next season. He isn't doing too badly this year, though, making the Chase in his first outing with the squad, and he could be in the mix again in this week's race. One win, three top-5 and four top-10 finishes in the last five Charlotte races gives Kahne a 7.4 average finish. Having finished on the lead lap only three times in that span he presents a bit more risk than some other drivers this week.

Joey Logano -
Logano has really impressed the last half of this season, coming to life with his new ride at Penske Racing. His fourth-place finish in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 was his second straight top-5 finish, pushing him higher in the Chase standings. Penske Racing appears to be a great home for the young driver who struggled to find his way with Roush Fenway Racing. One can imagine that with even more time with his new squad, even better things could be in store. At Charlotte his average finish is one of the better ones in the last five races at the track at 10.4, and includes two top-5s and three top-10s from three lead-lap finishes. He should be a confident selection for fantasy owners this week.

DOWNGRADE

Brian Vickers -
Vickers was caught in Kyle Busch's final mishap, only to survive to have one of his own with less than 30 laps remaining in Sunday's race. The car snapped loose on the driver, which caused heavy contact with the wall. Vickers was uninjured and will hope to take away something positive from an otherwise difficult day. After just two starts in the last five Charlotte races, Vickers only managed to finish on the lead lap once. He didn't score a top finish in either of those tries and amassed an average finish of just 19.0. Vickers is still getting up to speed with the team he will drive full-time in 2014, and everyone will just be looking to get a head start on next season.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon's race Sunday in Kansas was an up-and-down event, but he finished strongly. The veteran Chase driver tallied a top-5, his second in a row and sixth top-10 in the last seven races, with Sunday's effort. Gordon moved forward in the Chase standings with the result and continues to demonstrate that he still has what it takes to compete with the best in this series. Just one top-10 finish in the last five Charlotte races doesn't make Gordon an attractive fantasy option this week, though. His average finish in that time is 20.2 and isn't even among the top-20 of active drivers. While Gordon can compete, he isn't as dominant as he once was, and this is a week where fantasy owners might expect a less than optimal result.

Kyle Busch -
If there was a sign that said "kick me" at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, it was taped to the back of Busch's car. He came into contact with Juan Pablo Montoya, which sent him sliding, and then was turned hard into the wall after another restart with less than 75 laps remaining. This is the season that Busch showed he could at least start the Chase with his emotions in control, but we'll have to see if he is able to maintain his cool after last week's stress. His Charlotte statistics aren't fantastic in the last five races, a 16.0 average finish, but more worrisome for fantasy owners will be his ability to remain calm and cool under pressure.

Jimmie Johnson -
A top-5 running position looked to be in the bag in the closing laps of Sunday's Kansas race on Sunday, but trouble dropped him to sixth on the final lap. Another driver with a less than stellar record at Charlotte is Johnson. While he may be fighting for the championship the year, he has only finished on the lead lap once in the last five Charlotte races. That sole lead-lap result produced a top-5 finish, but the roller coaster of results makes him a slightly less than confident selection this week. While there is no reason to believe Johnson couldn't win this week, the past statistics show that if he isn't on his game in Charlotte, he usually finishes poorly.

Jamie McMurray -
Having not finished on the lead lap in any of the last five Charlotte races, McMurray is a driver fantasy owners may wish to avoid this week. There was a time when McMurray had a fighting chance for victory in Charlotte, but those times seem to have passed. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing hasn't been at its best the last few seasons, and McMurray has suffered as a result. His average finish in the last five is just 26.4, and that is not an average on which fantasy owners will want to gamble. McMurray was largely anonymous Sunday in Kansas and rolled home to a less than exciting 16th-place finish. This driver has just two top-10 finishes in the last dozen races and doesn't inspire the greatest confidence for fantasy rosters.

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