Last season, before the Chase for the Cup began, a few of the top 12 drivers said they thought Ryan Newman was the best driver not to make the field. Penske teammate Kurt Busch said he fully expected Newman to end up in Victory Lane during one of the final 2007 races, stealing some of the thunder from the championship contenders.
Newman didn't win at all last season, his second consecutive season without a victory. He did show some signs of better days to come, though, as he took the pole at Lowe's Motor Speedway and finished second at Martinsville. He also finished fifth in Texas and Phoenix, the two races prior to the season finale at Homestead. Running well and apparently miffed that he was going to ultimately end up 13th in the standings, Newman raised his fantasy appeal heading into 2008. If he could avoid the mishaps and car troubles that led to nine DNFs in 2007, fantasy owners could certainly look to Newman for better finishes overall.
One race into 2008, Newman is already off to a good start, and his fantasy owners have to be feeling very confident after Busch pushed him to a victory in the Daytona 500. Newman overshadowed impressive runs from the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas and wasn't given a serious threat from the Hendrick Motorsports superstars, as two of them encountered bad luck. While the season is only one week old, Newman's owners shouldn't expect a run of inconsistency or mediocrity in the weeks ahead. The Daytona 500 triumph should spur him to more success in the near future, and he now can put the troubles of 2007 behind him. Newman is simply a better driver than the overall results indicated last year. He's a perfect second or third driver to have in your lineup next to other superstars on your squad.
Of course, there were several other prominent story lines in a Daytona 500 race that was every bit as exciting as hoped. There were 16 different leaders, the second most in the history of the Daytona 500. The 42 lead changes at the start/finish line were the most since 2001.The Car of Tomorrow certainly produced compelling racing at Daytona, and most drivers appear ready to meet the challenge of using it over a full season. We should see more races filled with lots of passing and lead changes in 2008. Yet there were other results from Sunday that left fantasy players either frustrated or disappointed, and must be addressed.
Hendrick review: Jimmie Johnson pushed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a Bud Shootout victory and then opted out of the Bud Shootout early. It seemed he was saving his best for the Daytona 500, and he took the pole. Johnson wrecked, however, and finished 28th, and promising teammate Casey Mears also crashed and finished 35th. Jeff Gordon had to go to the garage with a suspension problem and finished 39th. Savvy fantasy owners will simply chalk this up to rotten luck, and they should. Expect Johnson and Gordon to rebound well at California, and Mears would have finished well if he hadn't wrecked. Earnhardt led for 12 laps but was not in contention when it counted. He ran in the top five for much of the day, though, and finished ninth, and it was a relief to see him not have any car troubles. His wins in the Bud Shootout and Gatorade Duels, along with his solid run in the 500, give his owners every reason to believe he will run among the top 10 drivers all year long, even if he doesn't actually push for an elite championship spot. This will be a year for maintaining consistency instead of actually winning a title. Earnhardt can key a run to a fantasy title, but you need to have good balance around him. He'll win more than one race, but expecting a championship is a bit much in a transition year.
Toyota, good and bad: The JGR Toyotas ran as strong as advertised, even though Tony Stewart dealt with another near miss after also falling short in the Shootout and Gatorade Duels. Stewart is off to a good start with the new manufacturer, though, and his owners should be very confident. Kyle Busch clearly had the best car and led for 86 laps, and now he can drive with peace of mind with his new team. Denny Hamlin led for 32 laps but had problems in the rear of his car that led to a 17th-place finish; he clearly deserved a better fate. Early on, it seems the manufacturer change has not altered the outlook of the JGR standouts. By the same token, it hasn't improved the outlook of other Toyota drivers, either. Brian Vickers finished 12th, but one solid run still could be followed by a bad one next week for him. Dale Jarrett finished 16th, but he is going to run only a short schedule and will never be a true contender again. David Reutimann finished 18th, but like Vickers, who knows about next week? J.J. Yeley was 25th, which is no surprise either way. Dave Blaney wrecked, so we will have to wait to see if he improves. The biggest sign that things won't change too much for Toyotas, though, was the 29th-place finish of Michael Waltrip. He started second and then fell back quickly, erasing all the optimism he created in his previous Daytona runs. It has become clear that even with the new manufacturer, the driver outlooks remain basically the same. Only the JGR cars can be trusted among the Toyotas, and if Blaney improves this year, it was expected, anyway.
The ex-open-wheelers: Sam Hornish Jr. ran near the top of the field for most of the day and finished 15th. It was a surprising run for a guy who seemed like he would be overjoyed just to qualify late last year. We still view him skeptically, though, as he obviously has a lot to prove over the full schedule. This does make him a good possible bargain for other upcoming restrictor-plate races, though. I'm hearing all the talk about how Juan Pablo Montoya will have a breakthrough year. He quietly finished 32nd Sunday, with his only real contribution being a nudge that likely cost Clint Bowyer a top-5 finish. I'm not sold on Montoya being much better this year, and I'm going to try to trade him in one of my Fantasy Stock Car leagues to someone who believes he will get past the bad finish quickly. I'm expecting another year of inconsistency and flashes of promise. Ganassi teammate Dario Franchitti finished one spot behind Montoya, and I'm already glad I passed on him in our FSR Mock Draft/Experts League. Owners shouldn't expect much out of Franchitti just yet.
David Gilliland: Where was the restrictor-plate "ringer"? He finished 28th and was never heard from. Still, I'm going to have him on my Stock Car Challenge roster at the first Talladega race. I'm not giving up on him in such events.
Jeff Burton: I must admit, I was pulling for him to win because I have him on one of my FSR teams. It was not to be, though, as he dropped back on the restart and finished 13th. Still, he had a good run, considering he started 36th. He is going to be very reliable in 2008 and will win at least one race.
Kurt Busch: After starting at the back of the field and enduring problems early in the race, somehow the older Busch was in position to push Newman to the win at the end. In the process, he got a slight measure of revenge against Stewart. But more importantly, he did an unbelievable job of overcoming adversity. I'm endorsing Busch as a top-five driver overall this year.
Greg Biffle: He finished 10th, and led for seven laps. He won't return to elite form, but Biffle is poised for a rebound season that gets him in the Chase and makes him dependable again in fantasy leagues.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.