NASCAR Barometer: Keselowski Takes Round One

NASCAR Barometer: Keselowski Takes Round One

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Brad Keselowski clinched the first spot in the Contender Round of the Chase for the Championship by picking up his second win in as many weeks in Sunday's MyAFibStory.com 400. The former champion now has five wins this season, two more than his closest rival, and leads the Chase standings by seven points over Jeff Gordon. While the first race in the Challenger Round didn't eliminate any drivers, it certainly gave others a hole to dig out of.

Chicagoland Speedway produced its usual competitive race with seven drivers taking turns out front. Kevin Harvick appeared to be the race's strongest contender having led 79 laps, but slipped backward in the closing laps to finish fifth after a battle with Kyle Larson. Jeff Gordon continued his strong 2014 season with another top performance, and some other Chase entrants suffered heartbreaking problems. There were a number of issues for drivers getting on pit road as well as on track, and those who were able to make the fewest mistakes on and off the track found themselves in position to capitalize.

UPGRADE

Brad Keselowski - Yet again Keselowski found himself out front and cruising to victory. The No. 2 team locked itself into the next round of Chase races by virtue of their win in Chicago on Sunday. The win was Ford's first victory in Chicago, and a strong statement for the championship by Keselowski. The next two races give the No. 2 Penske Racing team some leeway to experiment now that they are guaranteed to advance in the Chase, which could give them a slight advantage as the Chase moves onward. Keselowski does have six top-10 finishes at New Hampshire, though, so expecting him to take his foot off of the gas next week would be foolish. Keselowski is the dominant driver now, and will work to keep that status.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon continues to have one of the best seasons of his career. The former champion raced to a solid second-place finish on Sunday, which positions him perfectly for advancement into the next round of the Chase. The No. 24 came home in second position after leading 26 laps, picking up a bonus point. The best news for Gordon fans might be that next week's race is at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he has three past wins. The momentum Gordon continues to carry forward deep into the season could be starting to worry some of his rivals. If his average finish of 11th at New Hampshire holds up, he could virtually book himself into the next round of the Chase.

Joey Logano -
There were very few signs pointing to Logano having a strong race on Sunday. The Penske Racing driver showed very little speed in practice and wasn't able to mimic the pace shown by his teammate throughout the weekend. Logano confidently raced his way forward in Sunday's running, though. His effort came to a head as he crossed the finish line just as his engine expired. Logano's finishing position was fourth, which puts him in good standing heading into the next two races of the Challenger Round of the Chase. Additionally, Logano is a former New Hampshire winner with three other top-10 finishes at the track in 12 career starts. His average New Hampshire finish is 19.3, which he will want to improve on next week.

Kurt Busch -
Sunday didn't start too well for Busch. The former champion found himself losing control as he tried to wrestle his car onto pit road early in the MyAFibStory.com 400. Despite being put behind the competition with that mistake Busch was able to work his way back into contention, and wound up finishing eighth. The result was a solid start to his Chase effort, and exceeded expectations after not demonstrating a lot of potential through practice. To make things even better, Busch has a stout New Hampshire resume. The driver of the No. 41 has three past wins at the flat track, with seven top-5s, and 11 top-10s. His average finish there is 15.4, and with another determined effort Busch may find himself in the next round of the Chase.

DOWNGRADE

Aric Almirola - After making it nearly to the end of the first round of the Chase Almirola found himself losing an engine while running sixth. His running position would have been a perfect start for the underdog team coming out of the first round of the playoffs, but circumstances simply weren't meant to be. Almirola was the lowest finishing Chase driver on Sunday, which is a heartbreaking start to the first three-race elimination round. The No. 43 did well to get into the playoffs, but may need a miracle to come back and advance past the first round. Almirola has just one top-5 finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in his eight-race career at the track, and with an average finish of 21.2 his prospects don't look great this week.

Carl Edwards -
Strong practice sessions leading into Sunday's race were not enough to see Edwards through a solid first round of the Chase. The No. 99 started strongly, but quickly fell backward only to lose a left-rear tire late in the running. The trouble was a terrible instance of bad luck for Edwards, who finished 20th as a result of the issue, and now he No. 99 team will need a massive swing of good fortune to recover the ground lost by that issue on Sunday. In 20 starts at New Hampshire Edwards has never won and only has two top-5 finishes. His average result is 13.8, but he will need more than that to close the gap opened to the leaders on Sunday.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
Stenhouse displayed promising practice times heading into Sunday's race in Chicago. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has been behind the competition for most of the season, but started turning in some decent performances now that Roush improved their pace. Everything was looking good for Stenhouse through much of the race, but he wasn't able to close the deal. Unfortunately, Stenhouse came into contact with Danica Patrick with just 10 laps remaining in Sunday's race, ending his ability to contend. The damage forced the team to a 17th-place finish, which probably could have been better if the team lived up to what it showed in practice. Stenhouse has one top-10 finish in three New Hampshire starts and his average finish is 22.3.

Ryan Newman -
Newman's start to the 2014 Chase didn't begin as he had hoped. The veteran driver hit debris just before the race was 100 laps old, cutting his left-rear tire and dropping him from contention. Newman made repairs on pit road and returned to action, but the damage meant that he would only be able to claw his way forward to finish 15th. More than 10 other Chase contenders finished ahead of the No. 31, which means his finish puts him near the cusp of elimination in the first round of the Chase. Fantasy players will want to see Newman back in form next week, though. At New Hampshire the Indiana native has three victories and an average finish of 13.6 from 25 tries.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart proved on Sunday that past performance is no guarantee of future results. He had a fine resume at Chicagoland Speedway before Sunday, but never showed much speed in practice or the race. Stewart finished Sunday's outing in just 18th position, and was never a factor. Circumstances off of the track may be affecting his performance, and giving his pit crew to teammate Kevin Harvick probably hasn't helped his cause either. Stewart has yet to win this season, and could use a strong result to inject some success back into his garage. He is a three-time New Hampshire winner with 18 top-10 finishes from 30 starts at the track. His average finish there is 11.7, but fantasy players should have questions about the rest of the season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Kyle Larson - Not only was Larson in contention for the victory right at the end of Sunday's race, but he came from the tail of the field to be there. The young driver crashed in practice, forcing the team to roll out the backup car and start at the rear of the field. Still, the rookie driver showed his mettle and confidently carried himself forward to be in a battle for the win in the closing laps. He was pushing his car so hard in the closing laps that he hit the wall, but still managed to force himself into the third finishing position. The last time the series visited New Hampshire Larson also picked up a third-place finish, and he will be hoping to replicate that again this week.

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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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