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NASCAR Barometer: Gordon's Drive for Five

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 Indianapolis Motor Speedway produced its first five-time winner of the Brickyard 400 in Jeff Gordon on Sunday. Gordon joined the company of Michael Schumacher as being a five-time winner at the track, further extending his legacy as one of NASCAR's all-time greats. He won the race's first visit to the famed speedway in 1994, and captured his fifth crown last weekend.

The No. 24 was the dominant car for much of Sunday's 400 miles, and won the race despite not having the best of days on pit road. When the final restart happened it was up to Gordon to drive away from the competition he outpaced for most of the afternoon, and he did just that. He gapped Kyle Busch, and sped away to nearly a two-second advantage as the final laps clicked off, easily stretching his legs to claim one of the most sought-after victories of any Sprint Cup season.

Gordon now has two wins to help his effort in the Chase for the Championship. His victory on Sunday puts him in third position in the standings, which may be worth more than the prestige of being a five-time Indianapolis winner. Fantasy players should keep in mind that before the season began, Gordon said that he might just retire if he captured the Cup this season.

UPGRADE

Jeff Gordon -
The man that won NASCAR's first Brickyard 400 in 1994 took his fifth win in the race on Sunday. Gordon was one of the fastest cars throughout the weekend, but really turned on the afterburner once the green flag waved. The No. 24 was the class of the field on Sunday, leading 40 of the race's 160-lap distance. The day was not without its missed steps, though. The team failed to get the car full of fuel during the first put stop as the gasman tripped and fell. The problems weren't enough to overshadow the car's ability on track, though. Gordon picked up another three bonus points in the Chase for the win, and heads to Pocono Raceway where he finished eighth in June.

Matt Kenseth -
The top driver in the standings for the 2014 Chase without a win is Kenseth. The driver of the No. 20 machine sits 12th in the standings, but would receive zero bonus points for victories once the Chase gets underway. Kenseth has scored top-5 finishes in three of the last four races and may be the only driver in the running for the Chase without a win that feels comfortable about making the cut. He ran to a fourth-place finish in Sunday's Brickyard 400. He didn't lead any laps, but looked to be as big of a threat as teammate Kyle Busch prior to the green flag. Kenseth has been consistently, and quietly, working his way into a solid position in the standings.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne has continued to pick up his performances as the summer races have continued. He struggled through much of the early season, but has raced in and around the top 10 since the series last visited Pocono Raceway. He finished 42nd there, which was emblematic his early season woes. Kahne is currently four points out of the Chase hunt, on the cusp of making the cut. His two wins and seven top-10 finishes at Pocono Raceway indicate that he could stand a great chance of making the breakthrough next week, but his terrible result at the track earlier this season raises plenty of questions. Kahne is not the most consistent driver fantasy players could look to, but his trend is on an upward swing.

Kyle Larson -
Larson continues to score top-10 finishes, and picked up his second in a row after a run of three races finishing outside of the top 20. It appears as though the little slump Larson was going through from Sonoma Raceway to Daytona is now officially behind him. Back-to-back top-10 performances plus the strong showing all weekend of the Brickyard 400 propel him right into the Chase for the Championship. He currently holds 15th in the 16-place field, edging closer to a rookie berth each week. Larson ran very well at Pocono in June, finishing fifth, and has been a really strong racer on most of the flat tracks so far this season. This rookie should encourage fantasy players, and even more could be on the table.

DOWNGRADE

Kurt Busch -
Busch was trapped a lap down early in Sunday's Brickyard 400 and never recovered. The No. 41 car started the day with plenty of promise after a strong qualifying effort, but never overcame his lack of performance at the famous Indianapolis oval. Once Busch fell behind the lead lap he seemed to lose even more of his gusto, and finished behind Justin Allgaier among the cars a lap down. Busch has had a very inconsistent season, but has been racing better recently with plenty of room for future improvement. On the upside, however, Busch raced to one of his best finishes of the season in June at Pocono, the next race on the docket. Fantasy owners should remain wary, though.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart hasn't shown the same prowess we would normally expect in the summer months. He extended his run of mediocrity last week at Indianapolis with his 17th-place effort. Just one top-10 finish in the last seven races is not what fantasy players would expect from Stewart at this point in the season, yet that is what he has delivered. Stewart hasn't come alive yet this season, and it is starting to become a worry. The owner/driver currently holds 21st in the standings, which is nowhere near where he would like to be this near the start the Chase. Stewart needs to score a win or seriously turn around his finishes, quickly. Stewart is 30 points behind rookie Austin Dillon in the standings, so a win is vital.

Danica Patrick -
Though Patrick hasn't demonstrated much chance to score a surprise at Indianapolis in the past, her practice and qualifying efforts earlier in the weekend suggested that she could be in line for one of her better finishes of the season. The cards didn't fall that way, though. Patrick was off track and more than 20 laps behind the leaders when the race finished, though. A broken axle was the culprit, and she returned to the track after repairs with little to play for. She finished a terrible 37th-place at Pocono in June, and has yet to notch a top-10 at the Pennsylvania track in three career efforts. Patrick has shown promise at times this year, but continues to seek consistency.

Paul Menard -
Though Menard had been having one of his best seasons to date the past few weeks have seen him lose his edge. That slump continued this past weekend at Indianapolis where he finished a disappointing 34th position. He was two laps down to the leaders when the distance was complete, extending his run of finishes outside of the top 10 to four. Menard had a terrible weekend at Pocono in June, finishing 26th, and will seek just his third top-10 finish at the track. A top-20 finish would have been good news for this team last week at Indianapolis, but Menard's slide backward only continued, which is a big worry for fantasy owners that have come to rely on him as a deeper option.

Jimmie Johnson -
It may be a bit harsh to put Johnson into the downgrade column this week, however his performance Sunday was quite lackluster. The 14th-place position he scored was his third consecutive finish outside of the top 10. While better than his previous two 42nd-place finishes, he was one of the favorites heading into Sunday's race. When all was said and done, he didn't even lead a lap. For being one of the favorites heading into Sunday's 400 miles, his performance did not live up to expectations. Johnson is second in the Chase grid now, and that could put him in prime position to challenge for another championship, though. He finished sixth at Pocono in June, so he will continue to seek a rebound before the Chase gets underway.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin came from virtually nowhere to record a third-place finish in Sunday's Brickyard 400. He led 18 laps on the afternoon, and was a factor in the race despite not showing little promise in practice or qualifying. The Indianapolis oval is a very difficult place to pass, and track position is vital, making Hamlin's run to third all the more impressive. Add to Sunday's effort his fourth-place finish in June's Pocono race and you have a driver poised to outperform next week. Hamlin's Pocono resume includes four victories and 11 top-10 finishes in just 14 tries. His excellent performance at Indianapolis gives him momentum to extend that run of good form at the Pennsylvania triangle, which is great news for fantasy owners.