- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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The season didn't begin quite as planned for owners of some of the top racers, most notably Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who both struggled at Daytona. The second race of the season at Fontana looked like it would wreak even more unexpected havoc on fantasy racing leagues. Adverse weather conditions produced a big early wreck, and two top drivers were shot out of contention early.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin sank the hopes of their fantasy owners when the former was involved in the crash and the latter hit the wall early in the race. It seemed like more mishaps and madness were in store when the rain pushed the finish of the event back to Monday, and some had to wonder if we were going to see "24 hours of Fontana." Track conditions seemed to be a threat to any driver at any time, putting many fantasy owners on edge as the green flag flew again Monday.
Once the race restarted under better conditions on Monday, though, things seemed to shake out mostly as planned. It was not a shock to see Carl Edwards do his backflip when it finally ended, and fantasy players can take some clear positives from his victory. It appears Roush/Fenway Racing will contend all season in the Cup car, and we won't see the same type of Hendrick Motorsports dominance we did for such a long stretch last season. Plus, owners of Edwards watched him serve notice very early in the schedule that he will be a serious championship contender in 2008.
HMS has endured two weeks of bad luck, with no wins yet and two more cars relegated to unsightly finishes in both races. Earnhardt and Casey Mears placed 40th and 42nd, respectively, yet much of the post-race buzz in their camps will be about the track conditions. Mears finished 35th at Daytona because of an accident, and though his season obviously is off to a very bad start, he has deserved better. You can look for a quick, solid turnaround from Mears, and Earnhardt will be highly motivated to bounce back at Las Vegas.
When I say we won't see Hendrick dominate as much this year, that doesn't mean the team of standouts won't have its top guys running up front for most of the races. They'll just see more competition for the championship this year, and you can't own your fantasy league like you did in 2007 simply by having Gordon or Johnson anchor your squad. Those two guys still will make your team a favorite, but expect stiffer competition from your league mates in 2008 if you're a Gordon or Johnson owner.
Yet after they suffered through a rough first week at Daytona, Gordon and Johnson both reasserted themselves in impressive fashion at California. Gordon's owners might be miffed that the race had to resume on Monday after the No. 24 car looked so dominant on Sunday night. Edwards clearly had the best car Monday, but Gordon was the guy to beat before the rain delay on Sunday. He wasn't quite as impressive on Monday, and it soon became apparent he was destined to run regularly behind Edwards and Johnson. Still, he finished third, and Gordon will focus more on winning races this season instead of finishing consistently in the top 5, so some wins are certainly ahead. Gordon can't be satisfied with his first two outings and his championship "drought" since his last title. His owners have a lot to look forward to.
Johnson simply regained his best form at Fontana, leading 75 laps, and his owners received the type of performance they expected. Look for HMS to come on strong as a group beginning at Vegas, and if you're not quite at the point in your standings where you like to be with the Hendrick guys, there's no reason to fret.
Edwards was not the only Roush/Fenway driver who had a strong run. The performance of Matt Kenseth might be the most impressive of any when you consider he went down a lap early on and was at the back of the pack. A popular pick to win at Fontana again, he finished fourth, and Kenseth will be a very good No. 1 driver on any fantasy team this season. Like Edwards, he should also be in or around the top 5 in the standings for most of the schedule.
Here are some key notes on the Fontana performances of some other drivers:
Martin Truex Jr.: The new lead guy at DEI finished sixth and looked better than he did at Daytona. He likely will make the Chase for the Cup again, and you should have no worries about him if he is the No. 2 driver on your ESPN.com FSR squad.
Kasey Kahne: He placed ninth, and at times looked like he could contend for the win. He has opened the 2008 season with a pair of top-10 finishes, which is highly encouraging. If you try to trade for him now in an FSR league, you likely will be rebuffed. If you have him now, don't sell high. This looks like a real rebound season for Kahne.
Ryan Newman: He was never a threat to win the race, but he finished 10th, even after a scrape with the wall Monday. Newman is going to make the Chase and will be one of the better No. 2 drivers to have on your roster this year.
Greg Biffle: Like Gordon's owners, those who have Biffle on their rosters were frustrated that the race didn't finish Sunday, when Biffle looked like he could push for a win. He wasn't as strong on Monday but still finished 15th, and he will at least be reliable for quality finishes in 2008.
Clint Bowyer: He wrecked at Daytona and could only muster a 19th-place finish at Fontana. Bowyer's season has gotten off to a frustrating start, but he will deliver several top-10 finishes in the weeks ahead.
Juan Pablo Montoya: He threatened to become a regular part of the top 10 but couldn't sustain the momentum and finished 20th. I've said it before. I'm still not sold on Montoya ascending this season. I tried to trade him in one of my FSR leagues this past week but had no takers. He makes me very uncomfortable as my No. 2 driver, and I hate having to look for that light yellow car to check its progress.
Dave Blaney: He's another one who has been targeted as a driver on the rise, and another one I'm skeptical about. Blaney might have been the best Toyota driver last year, but that doesn't mean much. I won't believe he is going to run better until I see signs of it first.
Dario Franchitti: He quietly finished 32nd. I see a long uphill battle for the ex-open-wheeler in 2008.
Reed Sorenson: He was one of the guys involved in the early wreck, and it was frustrating to see after he ran well at Daytona. Sorenson has a lot of talent and still will prove to be a good bargain this season, especially if he is your No. 4 FSR driver.
Sam Hornish Jr.: After a surprisingly impressive opening run at Daytona, he was also involved in the early multicar mishap. Hornish still must prove he can build on the success of the first week, and he's better used occasionally on a Stock Car Challenge roster. You won't be able to depend on him in FSR leagues, even at the back of your lineup.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
18dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information