Commentary

Top 10 fantasy seasons of past 20 years

Originally Published: May 20, 2008
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

In the course of my fantasy writing duties, I often get asked (in bemused tones), "I don't get fantasy NASCAR; how do you even play, and what makes a good fantasy driver?" My answer is usually something like, "You've heard of Jeff Gordon, right? Pretty fair fantasy driver."

Points in fantasy NASCAR games are awarded for the same kinds of results drivers strive for every week: finishing position, wins, laps led, poles, quality passes, etc. So a good real-life driver is, by definition, a good fantasy driver. On a year-to-year basis, we're also looking for the "next big thing": a driver who can come out of nowhere to reward his or her fantasy owner disproportionately to his or her value at the beginning of the season. To take a small current example: Kyle Busch was rated eighth in ESPN.com's preseason driver rankings, but he currently leads the Sprint Cup points and has two wins and seven top-10 finishes in 10 events. He's been a great fantasy sleeper to this point.

The past 15 years have seen plenty of both types of excellence: sheer dominance and unexpected brilliance, each of which has rewarded fantasy players in spades. On that note, with those criteria in mind, let's look at the 10 greatest fantasy NASCAR seasons since 1992.

[+] EnlargeSterling Marlin
AP Photo/Terry RennaSterling Marlin wasn't always an also-ran.

10. Sterling Marlin, 1995
Until '95, Marlin was known as a good qualifier and a plate-track specialist who'd won one Cup race: the 1994 Daytona 500. He'd finished seventh in points in 1991 but had otherwise never cracked the top 10. Marlin had moved around a lot during his first decade in racing, and entering '95 he was nobody's idea of a first-round draft pick. But he won the Daytona 500 again for Morgan-McClure in '95, then won at Darlington and Talladega. In the course of that magical season, he posted a career-high 22 top-10 finishes, failed to complete only two events and smashed his best average finish for a season with a mark of 9.8. When the dust settled in '95, Marlin didn't have anything for Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt, who duked out one of the sport's closest point chases. But by then, Gordon and the Intimidator were household names and co-favorites nearly every year to capture the title. In finishing third in points, Marlin set a standard for sleeper seasons that few have matched in the past 15 years.

[+] EnlargeRyan Newman
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeFlyin' Ryan has been competitive for most of his career, but never more so than 2003.

9. Ryan Newman, 2003
Newman's first full season, in 2002, earned him the reputation as an elite qualifier, as he captured six poles. He also won his first Cup race, and posted an impressive 22 top-10s, finishing sixth in points as a rookie. But that was just an aperitif. The next season, the No. 12 captured an incredible 11 poles, tying for the second-most ever in a single year. Newman also won a ridiculous eight races, more than any driver had done in five seasons. But perhaps the reason Newman's awesome '03 is most noteworthy is the change it provoked. Flyin' Ryan had seven DNFs that year, and finished only sixth in the points standings, while Matt Kenseth, winner of just one race, cruised to his only Cup championship to date. "Outrageous!" cried many newcomer NASCAR fans, who preferred to see unimaginable excellence, and not consistent goodness, rewarded in their sporting events. At least in part because of the dichotomy between Newman's and Kenseth's 2003s, the Chase for the Championship was born in '04, and in-season strategy has never been the same.

[+] EnlargeCarl Edwards and Greg Biffle
AP Photo/Matt SlocumTied for second, Biffle was awarded second place for having more victories.

8. Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, 2005
It's hard to separate these Roushketeers' '05 seasons, at least in part because they finished in a flat-footed tie for second in points. But I honor them here because of how completely out of left field their impressive seasons came. Biffle was a 78-race Cup veteran with three wins and 14 top-10s in his career, but he'd never finished higher than 17th in points. Edwards had only participated in 13 Cup races, with more DNFs (two) than top-5s (one). Yet over that magical season, these two Roush cars combined to crush the field at the cookie-cutter tracks, winning at Atlanta twice (Edwards), Texas twice (Biffle in the spring, Edwards in the fall), Fontana (Biffle), Michigan (Biffle) and Homestead (Biffle), throwing in Biffle wins at Darlington and Dover and an Edwards victory at Pocono, too. They may have finished behind Tony Stewart for the championship, but these guys -- who are now household names -- came out of nowhere to provide perhaps the most unexpected fantasy value of the 2000s.

Rusty Wallace
Getty ImagesRusty was a great fantasy option for his whole career.

7. Rusty Wallace, 1993
We'll hear from the guy who won the points title in '93 in a minute, but Wallace turned in an all-time season while finishing second. He won 10 races, including a spring run of three in a row at Bristol, North Wilkesboro and Martinsville. The season began with a scary-looking wreck at Daytona in which Wallace's No. 2 went airborne, a scene which was repeated at Talladega later in the year. All in all, Wallace battled Dale Earnhardt tooth and claw all season, taking 10 of the circuit's 30 events including the first Cup race ever run at New Hampshire, but his excellent 19 top-5 finishes couldn't overcome the Intimidator's consistency, and Wallace lost out on his second title by a mere 80 points. But he and Earnhardt were both so much better than everyone else (Mark Martin was third that year, a whopping 376 points behind Earnhardt), they were clearly the dominant fantasy drivers of that year, and among the most dominant ever.

[+] EnlargeTony Stewart
Jon Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe kid was pretty darn good at both open wheel and stock car driving.

6. Tony Stewart, 1999
Before '99, Smoke was known as a USAC Triple Crown and IRL open-wheel champion, but hadn't entered NASCAR's collective consciousness. His rookie year changed that. Stewart had never even raced a stock car at the sport's highest level, yet this natural talent finished fourth in points, outdoing such esteemed competitors (and, to that point, more valuable fantasy entities) as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace. He won at Richmond in September, then closed the year with a flurry, winning back-to-back events at Phoenix and Homestead. If you owned Stewart in his rookie year, you likely also could afford to own one of the sport's then-titans, which meant you did really, really well in your league.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images/NASCARThe California kid was just flat out awesome during the Chase.

5. Jimmie Johnson, 2007
Johnson's second consecutive points title was the racing equivalent of a slam dunk. He began the season in ludicrous fashion: four wins and nine finishes of fourth or better in the year's first 12 races. But that was simply a precursor to a legend-making Chase performance. J.J. led his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon heading into the Chase, then spanked the No. 24 all over the nation for 10 races, culminating in a four-event winning streak from October 21 to November 11, at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix, tying a modern-era record for most consecutive races won. He posted seven finishes of sixth or better in the Chase, an unmatched performance in the playoff system's young history, and won countless fantasy leagues simply by grinding the competition into dust, posting 10 victories overall.

4. Dale Earnhardt, 1993
Entering '93,

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaThe Intimidator was certainly the best of recent memory and that makes him a fantasy stalwart.
the Intimidator was mired in a mid-career swoon. After winning his fifth championship in 1991, Earnhardt posted a career-worst 12th place in 1992. While the Chevrolets definitely suffered at the hands of a new Ford aerodynamic package in '92 (five of the drivers who finished ahead of the Intimidator drove Fords), there's no doubt Earnhardt wasn't strong that year. His longtime crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine left the team, and Andy Petree (currently seen on ESPN race telecasts) jumped into those big shoes in '93. Suddenly the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 had its fire back. Earnhardt led the most laps in the Daytona 500 but the crown jewel continued to elude him (he finished second), yet he went on to win five times in an eight race span in the middle of the season, and fought off a hellacious charge from Rusty Wallace. All told, he won six events and posted just two DNFs that year. Suddenly, a season after he looked like his career was on its downswing, Earnhardt was a champion for the sixth time.

3. Jeff Gordon, 1995

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesA former rookie of the year with a bad 'stache, Gordon has been a fantasy stud for more than a decade.
Who? A scrawny kid from California with a really bad mustache, Gordon had finished 14th in points with no wins while taking the '93 Rookie of the Year award, then managed two victories and finished eighth in points in '94, but he was mostly a complete mess that season, wrecking out of a full one-third of Cup events. He was seen around the garage as a talented guy who might be better off driving with his helmet turned backward. Then suddenly in '95, things clicked for the No. 24, and he waged a grueling, season-long fracas with Earnhardt's No. 3 team: the 24-year-old kid staring down a seven-time champion at the height of his powers. Gordon won a series-high seven times and tied Earnhardt with a series-high 23 top-10s in 31 races. It appeared the whippersnapper had sealed his first championship after a September night in Martinsville left Gordon 275 points ahead of Earnhardt, but then the Intimidator went crazy, going second, third, second, fourth and 10th to almost squeak out a record eighth Cup title. But Gordon held on for the first of his four points victories, in the process coming from nowhere to become a force for more than a decade.

[+] EnlargeAlan Kulwicki
RacingOne/Getty Images"Underbird" won what was, arguably, the best points race in the history of NASCAR.

2. Alan Kulwicki, 1992
"Special K" was the 1986 Rookie of the Year, so it's not like no one had ever heard of him. But this mechanical engineer from Wisconsin didn't fit the mold of a good-old-boy stock car driver, and he was the owner of his own single-car team in an era where the big money was already in multiple-car ownership. When Kulwicki won the Bristol race in April, it was a nice story, but nobody expected he'd hang around near the points lead. Yet hang around he did. Kulwicki never faded. Heading into the season's final event in Atlanta, he was in second place behind Allison, and six drivers had a mathematical chance of taking the points title. (Incidentally, that race was the last in Richard Petty's career, and the first in Jeff Gordon's.) Kulwicki received permission from NASCAR to change the "Thunderbird" on the front of his Ford to read "Underbird," to honor his shot at posting one of the biggest underdog championships in any sport. He finished second in that race and won the title, having overcome a 278-point deficit with just six races left in the season. Kulwicki was no doubt the last single-car team ever to win a Cup championship.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
Craig Jones/Getty ImagesThere can't be much more said about Gordon who is currently looking for his fifth title this season.

1. Jeff Gordon, 1998
Take a look at the numbers, and you'll see that Gordon's '98 season, while not as unexpected as many on this list, was perhaps the most dominant of the past 15 years. Gordon won 13 races, tying Richard Petty's 1975 mark for the modern-era record most in a season. More improbably, he recorded top-5 finishes in an incredible 26 of 33 races. He tied a NASCAR record by winning four consecutive events. And his points dominance was almost comical: He beat second-place finisher Mark Martin by 364 points and third-place finisher Dale Jarrett by 709 points. In the past 30 years, only Dale Earnhardt's margins in '87 and '94 exceeded Gordon's destruction of the field. With the Sprint Cup circuit's current technological and financial parity, Gordon's '98 season stands out as the final front-to-back dominant season in NASCAR history.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.