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NASCAR Barometer: A Pocono First for Junior

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.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took advantage of Brad Keselowski picking up debris on the nose of his car late in Sunday's Pocono 400 to score his second win of the 2014 season. Keselowski seemed to be in control of the race until the final laps when debris on his nose threatened to end his afternoon prematurely. The former series champion made a move while lapping Danica Patrick to clear his nose and reduce engine temperature, which enabled Earnhardt to make the pass that won him the race. Keselowski wasn't able to respond to the No. 88's attack, and Earnhardt cruised to his second victory of the season, locking himself into a Chase position.

Sunday's race was dominated by Keselowski's Ford-powered car, but he wasn't able to pull off the victory. Equally as disappointing was Jimmie Johnson, who made contact with Marcos Ambrose in the pits, putting him behind the ball early on Sunday. Similarly, Sunday's race took out a number of top contenders, leaving Keselowski and Earnhardt to battle for the win the closing laps, giving both a boost as the series heads to Michigan International Speedway this weekend.

UPGRADE

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt won his second race of the season Sunday at Pocono. He was able to work his way past Brad Keselowski to take an unexpected victory Sunday in Pennsylvania after Keselowski was balked when trying to pass Danica Patrick in the closing laps of the race. Earnhardt locked himself into the 2014 Chase with that effort, and it was his first time scoring multiple victories in a season since 2004. The championship contender also has two wins at Michigan International Speedway, along with six top-5s, and 10 top-10s. The win was Earnhardt's first at Pocono, and sets him up for a great run to the Chase, and possibly even a run at this season's championship title.

Brad Keselowski -
Were it not for some errant debris, and a slower car in the closing laps, Keselowski may have found himself in Victory Lane last weekend in Pocono. The championship-winning driver was forced to check up while passing Danica Patrick in the closing miles of last week's race, and had to settle for second finishing position behind Earnhardt. Afterward he said he had no choice since the check-up was the result of him trying to clear his grill. As it was, he survived the distance and finished second on the afternoon, setting himself up nicely for this week's race in Michigan. The driver of the No. 2 car has just two top-5 finishes from his nine races at Michigan. His average finish if 16.9, with an average start of 20.8.

Martin Truex Jr. -
While much wasn't expected of Truex last weekend at Pocono, the driver of the No. 78 car outperformed expectations. After such a rough start to the season Truex has started to turn things around lately. His top-10 run last week in Pocono should do a lot to help this team achieve its expectations, especially considering the result gave him consecutive top-10 results, which are his first top-10 runs since Richmond earlier this season. Truex has three top-5s and five top-10s in 16 career starts at Michigan with an average finish of 15.7. Though times have been tough for this team and driver, signs of life are starting to peek through the clouds, and Truex could become a valuable fantasy option in the run to the Chase.

Kurt Busch -
After such a rollercoaster season, Busch scored a solid third-place finish in Sunday's Pocono 400. That finish was his best since the win he scored at Martinsville Speedway in the STP 500, and gives him a valuable 42 points toward his position in the Chase, which could make a difference if he is unable to find Victory Lane again this season. Despite two wins at the two-mile oval, Busch does not have as good of a record at Michigan than he did at Pocono. His average finish from 26 starts at the track is 21.2, with 14 lead-lap finishes. He has four top-5s and nine top-10s at the track in that time, and fantasy players will have to answer whether or not they think he will carry momentum forward after last week's result.

DOWNGRADE

Matt Kenseth -
Terrible qualifying and contact in the race destroyed any hopes Kenseth may have had of a good finish in Sunday's Pocono 400. The former champion ran into Jamie McMurray, which damaged his nose and forced multiple repairs on pit road. Eventually he was able to work his way back onto the lead lap, but only finished 25th on the afternoon. The entire weekend was disappointing for Kenseth, who has an otherwise impressive Pocono record. The finish was also a turn in form after three consecutive top-10 results, including two top-5s. Kenseth's two wins and 18 top-10 finishes at Michigan help him to an average finish of 9.6 from 29 career starts at the tri-oval, and we'll see if he can bounce back this weekend.

Kasey Kahne -
Late contact with the wall and Carl Edwards ended Kahne's day in Pennsylvania. It was a race where Kahne should have performed above expectations, but his qualifying effort was lackluster and his race ended against the wall. It was a 42nd-place result that has to frustrate this team even more than before. To see his teammates continually winning, without seeing a substantial improvement in form himself has to have Kahne and the No. 5 team searching for answers. Sunday's disappointment tallied three consecutive results outside of the top-10, extending Kahne's inability to deliver top results this season. Kahne's average finish of 15th in his Michigan career indicates fantasy players will want to see how he qualifies before selection.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards was collected when Kahne exited the race late on Sunday. It was an unfortunate end to what could have been a fairly decent day for the Roush Fenway Racing driver. Looking ahead, the No. 99 driver does have the best Michigan record, though. His average finish at the track is 8.3, with two wins, nine top-5s, and 15 top-10s from his 19 races at the track. Despite the fact that Edwards was ruled out of last week's race by contact he should still be a solid fantasy option this week in Michigan. He still has three top-10 finishes in the last six races to add to the win that is powering him into a Chase position, and Edwards should be a force to contend with in Michigan.

Joey Logano -
Engine troubles stunted what could have been a decent day for the driver of the No. 22 machine. Logano finished 10 laps down to the leaders after mechanical issues stunted his progress after qualifying seventh for Sunday's Pocono 400. The young driver was classified in the 40th position after an up and down weekend that saw a great qualifying effort followed by a terrible final practice. His wins make him a top contender for the Chase at the end of the season, but he suffered last week in Pocono. Logano's Michigan record includes a win and five top-10s from 10 starts for an average finish of 16.7. He failed to finish on the lead lap three of those tries, and that could be a hurdle for him to overcome this week.

Danica Patrick -
Coming away with a top-20 result after a fairly decent qualifying effort would have been a great result for Patrick. Instead, she kissed the wall and fell down the running order to finish Sunday's race in 27th position. After the best finish of her career just three races ago, expectations have increased for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. Her performances so far in 2014 still haven't matched those of her teammates, and consistent progress is what she should be looking for. That progress wasn't displayed last week, and will be expected next week. Her two Michigan races have given her an average finish of 18th, despite an average start of 32.5, which could be good news. Fantasy owners should be wary of choosing her, though, and wait to see her practice and qualifying speeds.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Kyle Larson -
A rookie driver at a notoriously difficult track is usually not a fantasy player's best option. Larson proved the doubters wrong last weekend in Pocono, though. The Chip Ganassi racing driver had a decent qualifying effort, went out and won Saturday's ARCA race, and then chalked up a top-5 Sprint Cup finish with seven laps led in Sunday's feature race. This young driver continues to impress pundits, and should be in store for more success as the season wraps around in its second half. Larson's lone Nationwide series start at Michigan International Speedway returned a second-place finish. With at least one race under his belt at this week's circuit, perhaps the sky is the limit for this rookie driver.