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NASCAR Barometer: Still the Leader

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 teammates at Hendrick Motorsports ganged up on the competition Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. While Jeff Gordon started from pole, he and the rest of the team dominated the top running positions throughout much of the distance. Johnson and Kasey Kahne led most of the race's laps between the two, while Gordon jumped out to the lead in the early going. Dale Earnhardt Jr. got his nose in the mix for some time as well, but none was able to hold off the field after the final restart.

The night wasn't meant to be for any of the Hendrick cars. Brad Keselowski finally gave himself something to be proud of this season when he used a four-tire stop to overcome Kasey Kahne on track to score the victory. Most of the Chase contenders finished in the top 10, which has become customary for the final races of the season, and Matt Kenseth extended his narrow margin over Johnson making the final races even more of a contest between the two for the Sprint Cup.

What some would consider the wild-card event of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup is on tap this weekend. Talladega Superspeedway is known for top contenders recording DNFs as it is easy to get caught up in others' mistakes. The contenders will hope to come away from the weekend without losing ground and possibly being in a position to gain leverage on competitors' bad days.

UPGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
The defending Sprint Cup champion finally broke through to claim a win in 2013 after failing to qualify for a Chase spot in a very difficult season. It took a late caution to slow the dominant Jimmie Johnson, and Keselowski used a four-tire stop under that caution period to overtake Kasey Kahne, who emerged from the stops with the race lead. While most of 2013 has been a season to forget for Keselowski, this week's test presents one more opportunity to turn in another positive result for the champion. Keselowski's win and three top-10 finishes in the last five Talladega races gives him a 12.0 average finish, making him a top fantasy selection this week.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer hasn't had much of a Chase so far this year. He sat ninth in the standings before Charlotte and is more than a full race behind Kenseth and Johnson. He could notch a decent performance this week, though. Bowyer's Talladega record is one of the best, and his 10.0 average finish in the last five races there proves it. He ran much of Saturday night in the top 10, along with many of the Chase contenders, but when the checkered flag flew, he slipped just one position out and finished 11th. He moved up one spot to eighth in the standings and is a long shot to win the championship, but could pull off a top finish this week.

Matt Kenseth -
After Jimmie Johnson led 130 laps of Saturday's race in Charlotte it looked like Kenseth was destined to lose his lead in the Chase standings. A late caution allowed Kenseth to make up some ground and finish third, though, one spot ahead of Johnson. That finish gave the No. 20 one point more than Johnson, which extended his lead at the top of the table. Things just continue to look up for Kenseth this week too. Talladega has been good to him lately, marking a win, two top-5s and three top-10s on the score sheet in his last five tries. His average finish in that time is 13.2, including an impressive four lead-lap finishes.

David Gilliland -
Fantasy owners looking for a dark horse for this weekend at Talladega shouldn't need to look any further than Gilliland. The veteran driver hasn't finished off the lead lap in any of the last five races there, putting together an average result of 12.2 with a top-5 and two top-10s in the last five Talladega races. The current season hasn't been the best for him, but that doesn't mean there aren't specific places where he can exceed expectations. Gilliland hasn't finished in the top 20 since his 17th-place effort at Atlanta Motor Speedway in September, but he comes alive when the restrictor plates are installed. Gilliland is one of the better value drivers this week with some upside to fantasy players.

Jimmie Johnson -
Hendrick Motorsports dominated Saturday's race in Charlotte. Of the teammates, Johnson was the one who looked most likely to capitalize on the dominance of its equipment. He led 130 laps in the race and probably would have won had a late caution period not erased his advantage. Instead, Johnson fell one spot behind championship rival Kenseth in the finishing order and stayed second in the points. One victory and another top-5 in the last five Talladega races helps Johnson's 17.1 career average finish at the track. The championship looks to be a two-horse race, and both Kenseth and Johnson will do all they can to tip toe through Talladega and score a top result, hoping the other encounters trouble.

DOWNGRADE

Kurt Busch -
Arguably one of the worst records in recent history at Talladega belongs to Busch. Just one lead-lap finish helped boost his average result to a whopping 28.6 in the last five races at the superspeedway, which is disappointing considering how well he used to run at these tracks. His qualifying hasn't been much better either, with an average start of 23.4. Once known for his abilities to run up front in restrictor-plate races, Busch has fallen off the radar lately. While Busch was competitive in some stretches Saturday night in Charlotte, he only finished 14th, which is disappointing considering he was among the top 10 often during the running. This might be a week that fantasy owners shouldn't expect Busch to outperform expectations.

Denny Hamlin -
Just five top-10s so far this season is not what Hamlin would have predicted he would have achieved prior to the start of the season, but that is where he stands to date. His latest top-10 from Charlotte is his first since Pocono Raceway in June. It has been quite a difficult year for the No. 11, which should act as a warning for fantasy owners. To drive the point home, Hamlin only tallied one top-10 finish in the last five Talladega events. His average finish in that time is 20.4, with an average start of 22.4. He has three lead-lap finishes in that time and isn't one of the more attractive options for fantasy rosters this week.

Kevin Harvick -
While Harvick may be a name that rises to the top when considering drivers for a restrictor-plate weekend; his statistics at Talladega lately haven't been stellar. He scored just one top-5 finish in the last five races at the track, compiling a 22.6 average finish. He only finished on the lead lap twice in that time and may present more risk this week than an opportunity. His sixth-place finish in Charlotte on Saturday kept him third in the Chase standings, but he remains quite a distance behind leaders Johnson and Kenseth. This weekend will be his last restrictor-plate race with Childress, which has not been the dominant team on these tracks as it has been in the past.

Joey Logano -
Logano only scored one top-10 finish in the last five Talladega races. His average finish in that time is 25.4, and he only finished on the lead lap twice in the span. Racing at the Alabama track can be an up-and-down affair, but Logano seems to have experienced more downs than ups. He stumbled last week in Charlotte, collecting a finish of 18th while the majority of Chase contenders marked top-10s. Logano fell a spot further down in the Chase standings as a result of his disappointing night, and now must look to the roulette wheel that is Talladega to come good and make up some ground. Logano hasn't yet completely proven himself on the restrictor plate tracks, making him a difficult fantasy selection this week.

Ryan Newman -
Like Logano, Newman is another driver with just one top-10 from the last five Talladega races. His average finish is 28.0 in that time, and he also only had two lead-lap finishes through the same period. Fantasy owners looking for some upside potential have better options than the No. 39 this week. Newman wasn't terrible last week at Charlotte. He finished eighth which was his third top-10 finish in the last five races. Looking back to July we see that Newman finished 32nd in May's Aaron's 499 due to an accident. His only top-10 finish in the last eight races at the track came in last year's fall race, but that doesn't instill enough confidence to make him a top fantasy choice this week.

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