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NASCAR Barometer: In the Driver's Seat

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.

Only once before has Texas Motor Speedway experienced the kind of domination that was put on display last Sunday. While Carl Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing started the weekend by taking pole and looked to solidify their legacy at the 1.5-mile oval, it was another driver that sought to stamp his legacy on the asphalt.


Jimmie Johnson was locked in a tight points battle with Matt Kenseth heading into Sunday's AAA Texas 500. Unfortunately for Kenseth, Johnson had a perfect afternoon and extended his lead at the front of the Chase standings. Johnson jumped into the lead in the early miles of Sunday's Texas race and never relinquished his grip in what could be the defining moment of this season's Sprint Cup.

The No. 48 simply dominated the miles Sunday afternoon. In doing so, Johnson made it hard to imagine anyone else taking this season's title. His ability to run up front when the championship is on the line is what will define this driver for years to come, and those who watched Sunday will agree that this year's Sprint Cup is now Johnson's to lose.

With two races remaining in the Sprint Cup schedule, it is hard to see Johnson being beaten. He is a top performer at both tracks, and it will take a small miracle for Kenseth to overcome the tide.

However, this week we turn to Phoenix International Raceway.

UPGRADE

Jimmie Johnson -
After Sunday's performance it would be hard to see anyone other than Johnson taking this year's championship. The No. 48 laid down one of the most dominant races ever seen at Texas Motor Speedway. He extended his lead over Matt Kenseth and will look to close out the season with more domination like he showed last week. Johnson owns three top-5 finishes from the last five Phoenix races. As it stands, those are the only three lead-lap finishes he has scored at the track in that time as well. Still, Johnson looks like the driver to beat this week, and he knows how to turn his best on in the Chase. Fantasy owners can't go wrong with Johnson in Phoenix.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick's average Phoenix finish is among the best of active drivers at 7.8. That average includes a win, and three top-5s. He only failed to finish on the lead lap one of those times, and comes into this week's race as one of the better fantasy options available. He finished eighth last week in the AAA Texas 500, and Harvick is learning how to come alive in the Chase. Unfortunately that just isn't enough to topple the No. 48 for a title quite yet. Harvick is a top-tier fantasy option this week despite being out of the championship race, though his time for a title may be in the near future with Stewart-HAAS Racing.

Denny Hamlin -
Despite having a forgettable 2013 season, Hamlin comes into this week's race at Phoenix as one of the more desirable fantasy options. His record includes a win and three top-5s in the last five tries with an average finish of 5.8. He hasn't finished off of the lead lap in any of those races, and therefore is a top fantasy selection this week. He scored another top-10 finish last week in Texas, just his seventh of the season, but his second in the past two weeks. Hamlin is on his way back to where he was before breaking his back in California, and the competition better watch out when he reaches his crescendo.

Kasey Kahne -
Last Sunday was another top-shelf performance from Kahne. The Hendrick Motorsports driver gave his all, finishing fifth, but was overshadowed by the dominance of teammate Johnson on the afternoon. The No. 5 cannot be discounted this season, picking up the ball and laying down some impressive performances. Unfortunately, he came along in the era of teammate Johnson. That shouldn't change his prospects this week, though. Kahne won the fall Phoenix race in 2011 and has three other top-10 finishes in the last five races at the track as well. His average finish in that span is 12.8 and includes just one finish outside of the lead lap.

Carl Edwards -
An early engine issue ended any chance of a top finish for the No. 99 on Sunday. He qualified well and looked like he could have made a dent in the Chase early last weekend, but it simply wasn't meant to be. When the domination of Johnson was complete, Edwards was classified 37th of 43 runners. It was a terrible day for the Missouri native, and he beat just one Chase contender, Jeff Gordon, on the afternoon. Prospects don't get any brighter this week, though. Edwards' Phoenix average finish in the last five events is 11.8. He only failed to finish off of the lead lap once in that time and picked up a pole, a victory and one other top-5 as well.

DOWNGRADE

Jeff Gordon -
After forcing himself into title contention two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, Gordon found himself in the wall early last Sunday. The poor result Sunday may be indicative of what is to come this week too. Gordon's Phoenix average from the last five efforts is 16.0. He finished on the lead lap three of those races, won one, and managed to score two other top-10s. His recent record at the track is extremely inconsistent, and that is something he won't want to be battling as he heads into the final two races of the season. All things considered, Gordon just doesn't look as likely to outperform as teammate Johnson or even Matt Kenseth this week.

Matt Kenseth -
Looking to secure the 2013 championship, Kenseth must be dreading a trip to Phoenix. The track has not been kind to him in the last five races there, and he'll be hoping to better that trend to keep Johnson at bay. The contender has just one top-10 Phoenix finish in the last five tries, and an average finish of 16.0. He lost ground to Johnson last week in Texas, and based on the No. 48's performance most wouldn't be blamed for writing Kenseth off for this year's championship at this point. Survival might be all that Kenseth is hoping for this week, and that isn't a situation that fantasy owners should be looking for as the season draws to a close.

Clint Bowyer -
While he continues to consistently perform well, Phoenix is a bogey track for Bowyer. Only two top-10 finishes in the last five Phoenix races doesn't make for a confident fantasy option, and that is exactly what player will get this week with Bowyer. His average finish in that time is 20.2. He only finished on the lead lap twice in that span and isn't a driver that fantasy owners will look to with confidence this week. The No. 15 scored yet another top-10 last week at Texas. Unfortunately while Bowyer has been the shining star of Michael Waltrip Racing he hasn't quite sealed the deal, and it doesn't look like Phoenix will change the tide either.

Martin Truex Jr. -
A 14th-place finish at Texas last week may be a decent points week for most, Truex should be expecting more. His teammate is in the Chase, he narrowly missed his entrance, and he hasn't capitalized nearly as much as Bowyer has in similar equipment this season. While Truex can often be considered a solid fantasy option, the series visiting Phoenix undoes some of that confidence. The No. 56 has just one top-10 finish at the track in the last five races and amassed an average finish of just 24.0. His two lead-lap finishes in that time aren't inspiring, and that makes Truex a less than optimal selection this week.

Joey Logano -
Logano lays claim to just one top-10 finish in the last five Phoenix races. His average finish in that span is a disappointing 21.4, including a dismal two lead-lap finishes. While Logano continues to show improvement with Penske Racing, he isn't quite the caliber of Johnson or Kenseth quite yet, and this Chase should serve as experience gained for a long career at the top level of NASCAR racing for the young driver. He continues to show that he is developing. Who would have thought earlier this season that he would be in the Chase, let alone scoring top-5 finishes while Johnson and Kenseth fight at the front of the order? Logano continues to be a driver of the future, yet this future isn't seven days away.

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