- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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When you're setting your fantasy racing lineup every week, it's always very helpful to look back at the past season for guidance. Or it usually seems that way, especially when you're playing in a salary-cap style game like the ESPN.com Stock Car Challenge. So far this season, though, 2007's results already look like ancient history, and it's apparent new trends have taken over in the Sprint Cup series.
How much longer the standings will look like they currently do is anyone's guess, but for now, it's no longer a Hendrick Motorsports world, and some drivers are certainly performing above expectations, while others can't avoid bad luck. Most notably, Carl Edwards, who won the Nationwide Series title last season, has served notice he is fully ready to take the biggest title of all a year later.
Edwards has won back-to-back races with a dominant car, steering clear of bad luck along the way (an errant tire couldn't even keep him from winning in Las Vegas, and NASCAR officials determined the pit road blooper wasn't his crew's fault). Kyle Busch has had the best-looking car overall so far, but he hasn't been able to finish nearly as well as Edwards, and Matt Kenseth wouldn't have been able to catch Edwards even if he hadn't wrecked late in the race on Sunday.
If you have Edwards in an ESPN FSR league, you're likely going to get some trade offers for him this week, and you should not give into them in most cases. Don't sell high on Edwards. He has gone from Chase staple to true championship contender early this season, and while that's not a major shock, he is going to help you stay near the top of your standings all season long. Edwards is entering his prime, which could last for quite a long time. His average draft position in FSR leagues was 6.6, and most of those owners who drafted him are certainly seeing him perform better than initially expected. They should take it as a bonus and get used to the rarified air at the top of the fantasy standings.
Roush Fenway Racing has clearly become comfortable with the Car of Tomorrow, and Kenseth should rebound quickly after finishing 20th at Atlanta. After placing 14th at Fontana, the up-and-coming David Ragan finished seventh at Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the HMS inconsistency continued into the third week, and while Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second and Casey Mears bounced back to place 13th, Jeff Gordon wrecked and finished 35th and Jimmie Johnson could never get out of the back of the pack. He started 33rd and finished 29th.
Johnson now sits 14th in the standings, while Gordon sits at 22nd, behind drivers like Reed Sorenson and David Gilliland. There must now be a major sense of urgency surrounding both drivers, because they need some consistently strong finishes in the weeks ahead to get back near the top of the standings. Gordon knows he needs wins, not regular top-5 runs, to reassert himself as a real threat to Edwards' early supremacy. Now is a great time to buy low on Johnson and Gordon in FSR leagues.
It won't be easy to navigate back to the top of the deck, though, because some surprise and rebound performers won't give up their lofty slots in the standings very easily. Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, who sit fourth and sixth, respectively, have made it well known early that they have regained their form of the past after disappointing seasons in 2007 (and for Biffle, 2006 as well). Kahne and Biffle are only going to make the Chase for the Cup more competitive than ever before, and both of them look like they have become very dependable fantasy drivers again, great to stick into your lineup next to an anchor driver like Edwards or Kenseth.
Elliott Sadler finished sixth in the opener at Daytona and, combined with his 12th-place showing at Las Vegas, is ninth in the standings. Trade the somewhat surprising Sadler now if you can in FSR leagues. He's inconsistent and will simply not sustain the positive momentum. Brian Vickers is 13th in the standings, and while no one realistically expects him to stay in such territory, it is reassuring that he can be a good value selection for respectable finishes throughout the 2008 season. He's going to drop in the standings, but he won't embarrass you as a fourth or fifth driver.
After a painful-looking crash into the wall at Las Vegas, Tony Stewart is 11th in the standings, and his owners haven't been satisfied with his performances yet. It's been a somewhat frustrating start to the season for Stewart in a Toyota, but he should surge ahead with a strong run of performances later in the schedule and he is a good buy-low candidate in FSR leagues. Here's a look at some other key drivers and their performances during the first three races:
• Denny Hamlin: His ninth-place finish at Las Vegas was encouraging, and now Hamlin can start working back to consistently stronger finishes. With an average finish of 22.3 so far, you have to make offers for him as a buy-low candidate in FSR leagues.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He now has two top-10 finishes and a top-5 to his credit in three races, and quickly put a wreck at Fontana behind him to stay near the top of the field regularly at Las Vegas. I don't expect him to be a true championship contender, but he can end up near the top five overall at the end of the season, and his outlook has definitely improved as expected. I'm not trading him no matter where he sits in my lineup.
• Clint Bowyer: Where has the Chase form gone? Bowyer placed 29th at Las Vegas, and has an average finish of 23.7 so far. You will have trouble unloading him in FSR leagues if you try, but hang in there with him. He's a good driver and is bound to start performing better again in the near future. Keep him out of your SCC lineups until you actually see improved results.
• Juan Pablo Montoya: He finished 19th at Las Vegas, after placing 20th at Fontana. These are really the best sort of finishes I'm going to be expecting from Montoya this season, when not on a road course. Unfortunately, he's my second driver in an FSR league and I'm going to be stuck with him. No takers on the trade market.
• Travis Kvapil: He finished eighth at Las Vegas, his first top-10 finish since the 2005 season. Kvapil has looked smart and savvy at times early in the season, and he will be an occasionally useful bargain, especially in the SCC game.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
Scott Engel recaps the Sprint Cup's third race of the season, and says Carl Edwards is now entering his prime.