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NASCAR Barometer: Still the Favorite

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2015 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

After fans complained that long green-flag runs were making NASCAR Sprint Cup races boring, an early pile up in Sunday's FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway made for plenty of excitement. Many cars were involved in the incident, and it ruined the day for Tony Stewart who finished 25th after going to the garage for lengthy repairs.

Mark Martin came from the pole to lead early, but ultimately was overtaken by Jimmie Johnson. Once the No. 48 took the point he dominated the afternoon. Johnson led more than half of the distance and the only driver that seemed to truly be able to challenge him was his teammate Jeff Gordon, who was struggling to stay on the lead lap after trouble. It was a typical Johnson win in commanding fashion.

Next up for the Sprint Cup circus is Pocono Raceway. It is a tricky, long, triangle in Pennsylvania. The track has three distinctly different corners, connected by very long straights. The drivers that excel at this track set their chassis up as a compromise. There is no perfect setting that will work well through an entire lap, but the key is getting a good exit from Turn 3 for the long full-throttle straight heading to the finish line.

This race will be the first Cup race since the track was resurfaced, and it is expected to be fast. The increased speed, coupled with the long straights may spell further questions about engines. All manufacturers have lost an engine in competition in the past few weeks, and a number let go in Dover. Teams will be asking serious questions of their equipment next week, and reliability will be as important as a compromised setup this week.


Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson turned in yet another five-time champion's performance at Dover, earning his seventh victory at the track. He tracked down Mark Martin and claimed his second points win in three races. The No. 48 team has found its throne again, and doesn't look likely to give it up anytime soon. Pocono is another top track for Johnson, owning the top average finish through the last five races of 7.2. Three top-5s and four top-10s in that time make him a formidable competitor and a solid shot for fantasy points. Johnson's run could lead to a sixth championship, and it's an easy choice for fantasy owners to ride his momentum.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon took the 5-hour Energy 500 win last season at Pocono and could be due again this week. His five-race Pocono average finish is 10.6. That includes four top-10 finishes, and just one finish off of the lead lap. He was incredibly quick during Sunday's race at Dover, overcoming a loose wheel and using the wave-around rule to get back on the lead lap. The team used pit strategy to get that wave around, but his efforts were squashed when a late caution for debris ruined his chances for victory and landed him 13th when the race ended. Gordon's luck has been arguably the worst of any driver this season, but this week we're ready to try him again.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski won Sprint Cup's last Pocono race. His first three runs at the track all produced finishes worse than 20th, which bring down his career average at the track, but the No. 2 car is expected to be fast at the unique Pennsylvania oval. He finished 12th in the FedEx 400 on Sunday at Dover. The team had the car at the front of the field in the first half of the race and looked like it might have something for Johnson early. Keselowski hasn't finished lower than 15th in any race since mid April. Consistent finishes like that have him knocking on the door of the top 10 in points, regularly making plenty of fantasy owners happy.

Denny Hamlin -
Two wins in the last five Pocono races make Hamlin an obvious consideration for fantasy teams this week. His five-race average at the track is 8.2, third best of active drivers. In total he owns four winner's trophies from the track and could be the top choice this week. Eighteenth position isn't where the No. 11 team expected to finish Sunday's race in Dover, but circumstances conspired against anything more. Sunday's finish comes on the back of consecutive runner-up finishes, which could still provide momentum. Hamlin has owned Pocono some years, and if his car stays under him, it is entirely possible he could run the table again in 2012.

Kurt Busch -
Busch endured a rough weekend at Dover. Pressure from probation and a lack of results may be wearing on the Las Vegas native. An outburst at media, which might draw NASCAR action, and a blown engine in the race, made for one terrible week. This season was supposed to be pure racing for the brash champion, not stress. He could create something to smile about at Pocono, though. He scored two top-5s and an average finish of 10.6 in the last five Pocono races, making him a dark-horse selection for fantasy players. Fantasy owners should pay attention this week. If things don't go Busch's way in Pennsylvania it might trigger further problems, and he may find himself in a downward spiral he cannot escape.


Marcos Ambrose -
Ambrose took another top-10 from Dover. He said he had a decent car and fought hard to claim that 10th spot, fighting Greg Biffle tooth and nail for the position. The team has been fighting for finishes like that and could face an uphill battle again this week. Pocono has not been kind to Ambrose. His average finish in the last five races at the track is terrible. He only finished on the lead lap once in that time with a best finish of 20th. His first race at the track produced a top-10, and the team is improving, but struggles this season make him a risky play this week.

Joey Logano -
Logano won the Nationwide Series race last weekend at Dover and finished eighth in the Cup race, but raises some questions this week. His best finish in the last five Pocono races is 11th in last year's 5-hour Energy 500. He started from pole in the fall race here but turned that opportunity into a 26th-place finish. He has four top-10 finishes so far in 2012, which pales in comparison to the seasons his teammates are having. The young driver still has a lot of growing to do. He has time is on his side, but taking the Sprint Cup world by storm he is not. Fantasy owners probably know better by now, but Pocono is not one of the select few racetracks that Logano makes a confident play.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards appears to make a compelling fantasy choice this week in Pocono, but a closer look at his performances lead to questions. His average result in the last five Pocono races is 15.4, hurt by a 37th-place finish in the 2011 spring race. His best finish in that time was third, but he only led three laps in total during that time. His effort last Sunday was blunted with contact with the wall, and he finished 82 laps down in 26th position. He finished in the top 10 in two of the last four races, but when things have gone wrong for the No. 99, they've gone very wrong. Pocono might not be the place fantasy owners can expect the best from him.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart has been on one heck of a slide in form lately. He crashed early in Sunday's Dover race, his third finish of the last four races outside of the to 20. The Indiana native has a good record at Pocono Raceway, two top-5s and another top-10 in the last five races, but his current momentum is heading downward. His qualifying effort for last week's race was the main culprit in his short afternoon, but after winning twice early this season fantasy players would be expecting more from the No. 14. Rest assured that Stewart will come back before the season is over. He is an incredible closer as the season winds down, but it might be wise to avoid selecting him until he starts showing a turnaround.

Jeff Burton -
A blown engine late Sunday caused Burton to record his third finish outside the top 10 in as many races. After such a horrible season in 2011, Burton was hoping for more success in 2012, but is finding it difficult to come by. He has three top-10s to his credit thus far, but has seen more down times than not. At Pocono his record hasn't been terrible, but it hasn't been wonderful either. In the last five races he has finished on the lead lap every time, but only claims two top-10 finishes. His average result in that span is 14.6. A serious antidote is needed in the No. 31 pits. Results are scarce, and something just isn't working. Fantasy owners should steer clear.

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