NASCAR Barometer: Earnhardt Takes Talladega

NASCAR Barometer: Earnhardt Takes Talladega

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. assumed his role at the front of the field Sunday in the second restrictor-plate race of the season, the Geico 500. The Hendrick Motorsports driver picked up his first win of the season, putting a foot firmly into the season-ending Chase for the Championship.

Earnhardt looked like one a contender all afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway. He survived all of the wrecks that represent superspeedway racing, and avoided mistakes on pit road to remain at the front of the field. He found himself ahead of teammate Jimmie Johnson in the final miles, and stayed in front until the checkered flag.

What was unique about Talladega last weekend was the fact that the pack was single file in the closing laps. No driver willing to make a move for the win did so until the final lap. The two-wide sprint for the win was absent, and those who were making it double file were too far back to have an impact. Even a crash on the final lap wasn't enough to throw a wrench into Earnhardt's plans, though. Still, NASCAR obviously learned from the criticism they faced after the Daytona 500 and allowed the leaders to race to the finish despite the late accident.

UPGRADE

Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt lived up to his favorite status Sunday with another restrictor-plate victory at Talladega. It was his sixth at the Alabama track, and equaled his retiring teammate Jeff Gordon. The second-generation driver stayed in front in the closing laps to

Dale Earnhardt Jr. assumed his role at the front of the field Sunday in the second restrictor-plate race of the season, the Geico 500. The Hendrick Motorsports driver picked up his first win of the season, putting a foot firmly into the season-ending Chase for the Championship.

Earnhardt looked like one a contender all afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway. He survived all of the wrecks that represent superspeedway racing, and avoided mistakes on pit road to remain at the front of the field. He found himself ahead of teammate Jimmie Johnson in the final miles, and stayed in front until the checkered flag.

What was unique about Talladega last weekend was the fact that the pack was single file in the closing laps. No driver willing to make a move for the win did so until the final lap. The two-wide sprint for the win was absent, and those who were making it double file were too far back to have an impact. Even a crash on the final lap wasn't enough to throw a wrench into Earnhardt's plans, though. Still, NASCAR obviously learned from the criticism they faced after the Daytona 500 and allowed the leaders to race to the finish despite the late accident.

UPGRADE

Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt lived up to his favorite status Sunday with another restrictor-plate victory at Talladega. It was his sixth at the Alabama track, and equaled his retiring teammate Jeff Gordon. The second-generation driver stayed in front in the closing laps to close out his first win of 2015, helping put a foot solidly into the Chase for the Championship. Earnhardt expressed how good everything was going for him recently both on track and off, and it shows in Sunday's win. He must now focus forward to Kansas where he has two top-5s and eight top-10s from 17 starts. This team will need to improve if they want to win a championship, but the capability is definitely there.

Jimmie Johnson -
Riding in second place for the closing segment of the GEICO 500 paid off for Johnson, who came home with another top-5 finish in this 2015 season. Sunday's podium result makes it four weeks in a row where the No. 48 has come home in one of the top three positions, and this team is gearing up for a run at another championship. It is no surprise that Johnson is a former winner at the next track on the schedule, in fact he has won at Kansas twice in his career. His average finish at the track is 9.5 from 17 tries, and it wouldn't be surprising if he were in contention for the win in the closing laps next week, too.

Kevin Harvick -
Despite being involved in the first big crash of Sunday's GEICO 500, Harvick fought back and was among the leaders when the miles ticked down to the finish. Harvick tallied an eighth-place finish on Sunday despite having significant damage to his car from that accident, which was no small feat at such a track. The damage may have prevented him from driving to the front of the pack, but it wasn't enough to keep him outside of the top-10. Performances like Sunday's illustrate the difference between champions and also-rans, and Harvick is definitely a champion. Harvick has started from pole in each of the last three races at Kansas, finishing first, second, and 12th. Harvick should be expected to be a favorite next week.

Paul Menard -
Prior to Sunday's GEICO 500 Menard should have been considered a terrific value for fantasy rosters. The driver has Richard Childress Racing equipment at his disposal, one of the best superspeedway packages in the series, and is a very stout racer in the draft. He rewarded those who maintained confidence in him on Sunday by coming home in the third position. That finish was his second top-5 of the season, and a confident performance from the team knocking on the door of a Chase appearance. Menard has finished inside the top 10 in five of his last six appearances at Kansas Speedway, which makes him one of the better value options for fantasy rosters next week.

Sam Hornish Jr. -
Hornish hasn't had a ton to be positive about in 2015, but he has continued to push and that effort rewarded him with a top-10 at Talladega. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver's best 2015 result prior to Sunday came in the Daytona 500 when he finished 12th. Hornish has a lot of ground to cover before he starts matching the results that Marcos Ambrose had before him, but Hornish could accomplish more. The former Indy 500 winner tallied DNFs in each of his last two Kansas starts, but has two top-20 results there in his career. Hornish is a work in progress in 2015, but Sunday's result in Talladega could give fantasy players confidence for the two remaining superspeedway races this season.

DOWNGRADE

Joey Logano - Back-to-back superspeedway wins were not in the cards for Logano. The Daytona 500 champion was caught in the first big crash of Sunday's GEICO 500 when Trevor Bayne lost control. The No. 22 had nowhere to go when the track ahead of him became littered with spinning cars, and the damage to Logano's Ford was severe. The incident brought out a red flag, and meant that the Penske Racing driver would not even break into the top 30. Logano must not put Sunday's hiccup behind him and prepare for Kansas, where he won last fall. His three consecutive top-5 finishes at the track should give him some hope of putting last week's disaster behind him quickly, though.

Ryan Newman -
Newman isn't exactly known as the best restrictor-plate racer in NASCAR, but his early pit fire on Sunday thwarted his early hopes. The team fought back, though, and returned their driver to another top-10 finish. The No. 31 was a regular face in the top-10 runners in the races prior to NASCAR's penalties for tampering with tires, but those penalties seem to have affected the team's consistency. Newman can still offer up a top finish, but it hasn't been coming every week recently. Newman won at Kansas back in 2003 and finished sixth there last fall, but only has one top-10 finish at the track since 2010. Newman should be a contender, but the question about the team's consistency remains.

Austin Dillon -
Dillon's hopes for a top finish in Sunday's GEICO 500 literally went up in flames when his engine expired, catching the car on fire. His was the second Richard Childress Racing car to catch on fire in the race, and the misfortune eliminated him from the competition. The sophomore driver continues to search for improvement over his rookie performances of 2014, but as yet hasn't truly impressed in his second season. His three prior visits to Kansas Speedway produced just one top-10 finish, but that was an eighth-place finish last fall. If Dillon could use a boost, it would be this coming week. He will need to dig deep and get his team rallied behind him.

Kurt Busch -
An issue with his car's battery dropped Busch from contention for back-to-back wins on Sunday. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver spent most of Sunday afternoon racing as a contender for the win, but late in the distance that mechanical issue dropped him from the lead draft. The time it took to switch electrical supplies put them behind, and out of the running for a top finish. The No. 41 was outside of the top 20 when the last race less than 15 laps remaining but moved forward to 12th due to the crash on the final lap of the race. Busch's best Kansas finish was a second-place finish in the fall of 2013, but he finished worse than 20th in both races at the track last season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Ryan Blaney - Blaney is building his history as a Sprint Cup driver, and added to that effort last Sunday. The rookie made his best start in the Sprint Cup at Talladega, and also tied that to his best-ever finish in the series. The young driver has many years of results to break his direction, but his early efforts are showing that he will be a contender for the future. Sunday's top-5 finish is Blaney's first in the series, and his best finish in a Sprint Cup car since he finished sixth in his qualifying Duel in Daytona earlier this season. Blaney will be looking forward to Charlotte, not being a full-time Sprint Cup driver at this point in his career, but has plenty of potential ahead of him.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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