Daytona Wrap: Bud Shootout and pole qualifying
It was a very exciting weekend of Sprint Cup action with several interesting storylines, even though there wasn't a real race to recap. Saturday's Budweiser Shootout and Sunday's Daytona qualifying runs, though, have set the stage for a very exciting beginning to the season. As savvy fantasy players know, there can be drama and unexpected happenings at any time.
Nothing is dominating the racing headlines right now like Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory in the Bud Shootout. The nonpoints victory has certainly raised his stock in late drafts this week, and if you already own Earnhardt, you may see some trade offers come your way if you play in ESPN Fantasy Stock Car. Earnhardt's inspiring win will also make him a favorite choice in the first week of Stock Car Challenge play, as he is initially priced at $21.5 million in the game, a pretty good tag for a Hendrick Motorsports driver who has a long history of being successful at Daytona and other restrictor-plate tracks.
In 16 career Sprint Cup races at Daytona, Earnhardt has nine top-10 finishes , six top-5s and a pair of wins. Last year, he didn't finish in the top 30 in either Daytona race, but the 2007 season is now thankfully in the past and can be soon viewed as an aberration. Earnhardt will not have to worry about car troubles anymore, or where his future lies. He can simply concentrate on driving with superior equipment and let his talents take over. Junior may not be able to overtake his top two teammates for the championship, but with a clear head and a good car, he'll be a near lock to make the Chase for the Cup and you can count on him for good finishes at tracks on which he has performed well in the past. You won't have to worry about bad luck nearly as much with him this year. He won't be an elite driver all year long, as he gets accustomed to his new surroundings, but he certainly can be the No. 1 driver on a good fantasy squad. Don't get overwhelmed by his Shootout win, but it does mean you can expect him to finish in the top 10 in 2008.
After getting into a controversial fracas with Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart nearly won the Shootout, which would have been another great story as he and Joe Gibbs Racing face some minor doubts about how well they can fare in Toyotas this season. Stewart led for nine laps and showed no indications yet that he will have any troubles with his new manufacturer. Still, consistency has been an issue for Stewart during the past two seasons, and I am still in a wait-and-see mode on how he will fare in the Camry during the course of a full schedule. No one will handle a Toyota better than Stewart this year, but I would expect more overall reliability from Matt Kenseth and would also not be surprised to see Carl Edwards finish ahead of Stewart in the standings. Stewart is still a good first-round pick and will win two or three races, but I want to see if the early Toyota success can be sustained over the long haul.
Jimmie Johnson started 18th in a backup car in the Shootout, but finished third and unselfishly gave Earnhardt a needed nudge for a victory. When it counted even more on Sunday in terms of positioning, Johnson took the pole for the Daytona 500. Johnson has already served notice he is determined to earn his third consecutive Sprint Cup title, and any owner who has been lucky enough to draft him will sit near the top of their league standings all year long. He's a must-start in the Stock Car Challenge, and you simply build around him. In my FSR draft on Sunday night, Johnson somehow dropped to the third spot, which astonished me. Jeff Gordon, also in a backup car, surged from a starting position of 22nd to finish fourth in the Shootout, and if he finishes better more often this year after he opted for consistency last season, he is really the only guy who can knock Johnson off. Gordon learned consistency is not rewarded as greatly in the new Chase format when compared to wins, and he'll adjust accordingly. He will be a great fantasy anchor for any team this year, just as much as Johnson.
Many times, though, it's the lesser drivers who can make the ultimate difference in winning a fantasy title. Having Gordon or Johnson alone won't make you coast to the top if your other drivers aren't at least delivering respectable finishes. A pair of Toyotas have already made early noise. Dave Blaney, who was the best Toyota driver among a moribund field from the manufacturer last year, has already shown marked signs of improvement. He finished seventh in the Shootout and led for seven laps. Blaney then sat on the front row for a while in Sunday's qualifying before he was ultimately knocked back to fifth, which still gave him a prime starting spot in the upcoming Gatorade Duels. Blaney won't be a Chase driver, but he and his crew are smart and fundamentally sound, and he can be a solid choice for the fourth spot in your lineup. I would certainly pick him in the fourth round of an FSR draft.
A much bigger story for Toyota was the weekend performance of Michael Waltrip, who last year raced like a has-been who deserved to make commercials full time. Waltrip dropped early from the pole in the Shootout and fell back to the rear of the field, but ultimately recovered to finish 11th. Waltrip didn't embarrass himself Saturday, but blasted out of the doldrums fully on Sunday, when he joined Johnson on the front row for the Daytona 500. Waltrip's speed of 186.734 displayed the potential power of the Toyota stock car engine, as did the fact that Blaney and David Reutimann also placed in the top 5, giving the manufacturer three of the top spots Sunday. After a horrid 2007 season for Waltrip and Toyota, optimism reigns for the Toyota camp as the Great American Race approaches. Toyotas also looked impressive in early test sessions, yet it's too early to mark any of the non-Gibbs guys as dependable fantasy drivers, especially Waltrip.
Waltrip has an average starting position of 16.0, and qualified 15th and 19th at Daytona last year; he didn't finish higher than 30th in either race. In back-to-back races in 2004 and 2005, Waltrip qualified second and third at Daytona, and finished 13th and 37th, the second finish due to engine problems. He has no top-10 finishes in the past eight Daytona races, so it's going to take more than a good qualifying run to get him into my starting lineup unless I play in a FSR league of eight teams or larger. Waltrip can really tease you on the restrictor-plate tracks. Last year, he took the pole at Talladega, and finished 25th.
The Shootout is a more wide-open race than the Daytona 500, and more patience and pit strategies will naturally come into play for drivers in new rides or situations. So while the Shootout gave many drivers needed additional seat time in the Car of Tomorrow, I'm still skeptical about how Toyotas and other drivers who made significant changes will hold up during the much longer race and for the full season. I also expect better outings from Edwards (12th in the Shootout) and Clint Bowyer (14th) this Sunday. I will be watching how some minor switches play out, such as a new crew chief for Kenseth and the move to Hall of Fame Racing for J.J. Yeley, which could impede his possible rise to stardom for another year.
Some happenings from the past weekend certainly have some significance. Earnhardt is definitely a prime Chase contender and he can really help your fantasy team rise to the top if you pair him with another fine driver and use them as an "anchor duo" for your lineup. If he starts the season fast, Junior will stay near the top 5 in the standings all year long. Johnson is still the eminent driver in the sport, though, until further notice, and Gordon is a slight notch below him. As for all the early hype surrounding the possible rise of Toyota, let's remember the key word "early." It's a long season, and even JGR must prove it can effectively handle the new manufacturer for a full season.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
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