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NASCAR Barometer: The K-Man Does It

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.

No driver was faster than Brad Keselowski Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway. The former champion started from pole, led the most laps and claimed a commanding victory at the 1.5-mile oval. The win was the first from pole for the No. 2, and his second at the Kentucky oval.

For the vast majority of the distance it was one of the two Penske Racing teammates out front. Joey Logano seemed to have the edge on pit stops, but Keselowski would reel him back in on the track. There were a handful of tire failures that kept things interesting, knocking out Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson, but those issues were less frequent once the sun went down and the car laid a nice layer of rubber in the corners.

Kyle Busch almost managed to use pit strategy to claim the win when a late caution cycled him to the head of the field. Keselowski's handling didn't fade, though. The No. 2 did what he did best all night, and took Busch's lead down each and every lap until he made the pass and held station until the checkered flag waved. It was a stellar performance from the Penske team, and with performances like that Keselowski cannot be ignored in the Chase for the Championship.

UPGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski headed into Saturday night's race by setting the track record in qualifying. He clearly had the fastest car once the green flag waved and was the dominant driver throughout the race. There were hardly any laps that the Penske teammates weren't out front, and the No. 2 was even forced to chase down Kyle Busch after a late caution jumbled the running order. It was the perfect night for the former champion, winning his first ever race from the pole. Keselowski's 10 Daytona starts have produced two top-5s, three top-10s and an average finish of 20.2. The No. 2 finished third in the Daytona 500, which was his third top-10 finish at the track in his last four tries.

Kyle Busch -
Hard work and efficient pit strategy put Busch out front after the final caution in Saturday night's race. The driver of the No. 18 was even able to build a cushion for his lead while Keselowski picked his way through traffic. Unfortunately, Busch's car simply wasn't strong enough to maintain that lead and hold off the charging No. 2 car. He ended the night in second position, which is a great result for a team that has been locked out of the top-10 for the last four races. Busch's Auto Club Speedway win puts him in the Chase field, but he would feel more comfortable with another victory under his belt. His average finish of 18.6 in Daytona points races includes a win and six top-10s.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
After not being able to set his car up for practice and qualifying at Kentucky Earnhardt made changes that unlocked speed and handling in Saturday's race. He started the evening from 29th position, but confidently moved his way into the top-5 to extend his run of consecutive top-10 finishes to five. This week's race returns Earnhardt to the scene of his best performance of the season, and his confidence may even be higher now than it was in February. That combination means that the rest of the field knows they will likely have to contend with the No. 88 to have success this weekend. His three wins and 17 top-10 Daytona finishes is one of the best records at the track.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth snapped his three-race slide by scoring his first top-5 since the FedEx 400 at Dover Speedway on Saturday. The result didn't come without its share of troubles at Kentucky, though. The former champion was dropped down the order, but worked on his chassis to bring the car to life in the second half of the race. The team needed this strong result since they have yet to score an all-important win to help secure a spot in the season-ending Chase. Kenseth's two wins and 14 top-10 finishes at Daytona give him a decent average finish at the track at 17.1. He has also never failed to finish a points race there. Kenseth and team will be hunting for that win this week.

Ryan Newman -
It is a bit hard to believe, but Newman's third-place finish in Saturday night's Quaker State 400 was the team's first top-5 of the year. Newman was a long-shot option before Saturday's race, but he stayed on top of the car without having to make too many changes and claimed his first top-5 with Richard Childress Racing. Newman is a former Daytona 500 champion with six top-10 finishes in points races at the track. His average finish there is 20.1, which is also his average starting position. Newman continues to remain quietly confident this season, turning in solid results for fantasy rosters, and there is no reason to think that will be different after how strong RCR was here in February.

DOWNGRADE

Carl Edwards -
After snatching victory last week in California, Edwards was virtually invisible at Kentucky. The Roush Fenway Racing driver didn't show well in practice or qualifying, and never made an impact once the race got underway Saturday evening. When the Chase starts in nine races the No. 99 won't have the luxury of taking a week off from running at the front. There are certain tracks that this team needs to make improvements on, and the 1.5-mile ovals in the Chase have to be concerning. Edwards has yet to win a points race at Daytona, and has an average result at the track of 18.1. He will need to improve before the Chase kicks off if he wants to have a chance to score his first championship.

Jamie McMurray -
After solid efforts in both qualifying and practice, McMurray started Saturday night's Quaker State 400 with high expectations. He was ticking off laps steadily until trouble happened ahead of him after only half of the distance had been run. Alex Bowman spun in front of the No. 1 car, sending up a wall of smoke that McMurray was nearly through when Aric Almirola sideswiped him, causing damage for McMurray. NASCAR added insult to injury for the No. 1 car when they penalized him for speeding on pit road immediately after the incident. McMurray owns two Daytona wins, and finished 14th in February's Daytona 500. This team continues to race well nearly every week, but needs to move past the bad luck that has ruined their chances.

Denny Hamlin -
Before NASCAR could have its competition caution to allow teams to check tire wear due to afternoon rain, Hamlin found himself hard in the wall. The car shot right and collided heavily enough to end the night for the No. 11 without any attempt to try to make repairs. Earlier this season Hamlin looked like he was in store for a special season with the speed and promise he showed early at Daytona, but outside of victory at Talladega Superspeedway, the year has been turning out to be a struggle. The No. 11 was 13th in points before Kentucky, and will look forward to another restrictor-plate race this week. Hamlin has never won a points race in Daytona, but looked awfully strong back in February.

Kyle Larson -
Another driver that lost a right-front tire and hit the wall hard was Larson. The incident was really unfortunate for the rookie after he had such strong practice and qualifying sessions. Larson's impact was enough to end his night, just as it was for Hamlin before him. The rookie had worked his way into the 10th position in points prior to Saturday, but the crash made it two finishes in a row where he was unable to crack the top 20. Larson finished 38th in February's Daytona 500, but did score two top-10 Daytona finishes in Nationwide competition. Larson continues to be the field's most exciting rookie, but isn't immune to trouble.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer and the No. 15 team came to Kentucky Speedway on the heels of four consecutive finishes 11th or better. Bowyer's record at Kentucky isn't the best, but his form and practices indicated more could be in store for him. Instead, Bowyer turned an 11th-place start into a 23rd-place finish. He said prior to Saturday's race that points are still important to gain entry to this season's Chase, but he scored a lot less than he would have liked on Saturday. Bowyer has just three top-5 finishes in 17 Daytona points races, and has an average finish of 16.4. We will see if this team is able to turn around quickly after disappointing in Kentucky, and make a more confident claim to a Chase berth.

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