- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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For most fantasy players, it's not easy to focus on your racing team this time of year. There are a lot of distractions: baseball's Opening Day is upon us, the NFL Draft is right around the corner and, for many fantasy leaguers, football season never really ends.
Thus, it was a challenge for some of us to fully concentrate on Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway. I must admit that during the commercial breaks, I was thinking about how to move my surplus of starting pitching for some help in the middle infield. Once the race was over, it was all about baseball roster management and a checkup on Sunday's Arena Football results, which rank high on my personal sports agenda these days.
Anyway, there was a big mess at Martinsville, and at first glance, Denny Hamlin's first win of 2008 can easily get lost in the glare of Opening Day, as all it did was give his fantasy owners confidence that he will be just fine after an inconsistent start to the season. We're still without a Hendrick Motorsports win after six races ... in fact, that's not even news anymore. But there were several important items to note from Sunday's race.
In my mind, this Hendrick drought has to end soon. All four HMS Drivers finished in the top seven, and if you were able to deal for one of them before this week, you should start seeing optimum results soon. In salary cap-style games, such as our Stock Car Challenge, you should strongly consider getting Jeff Gordon back in your lineup before his value rises. If not for an early dust-up and some cars toward the back of the pack to contend with late in the race, Gordon could have claimed his first victory of the season.
Gordon, who started on the pole and led 82 laps, fell back to 31st following an early crash in which he survived with only some front end damage. In classic Gordon style, he ultimately slithered back to the front of the pack and made an admirable yet ultimately futile run at Hamlin as the race neared its finish. Gordon finished second but delivered a clear message that he's still a force to be reckoned with. His fantasy owners should look forward to his first win of the year very soon, and they should now know he can still anchor their squads. Yes, I've been hard on Gordon and his teammates so far, save for Dale Earnhardt Jr. But that's because I expect better of them, and I think we're finally going to get their best in the near future.
You can also feel better today if you're a Jimmie Johnson owner. He led 135 laps and survived an encounter with Ryan Newman to finish fourth. I think Johnson is far from a lock to win his third consecutive championship this year, as it's clear the race for the title will be more wide open. But after Johnson's showing Sunday, his owners will rest easier knowing that more strong finishes are ahead, and that's all you can ask. Earnhardt Jr. delivered another solid outing, placing sixth, and he led for a race-high 146 laps. Earnhardt is often looking like a winner but isn't finishing well enough. Once he puts together those strong runs when it counts the most, he's going to come through with at least two wins this season.
The guy who needed a quality finish the most (except for Jamie McMurray, perhaps) was Casey Mears, who came through with a seventh-place showing, his best performance so far in what has been a very frustrating start to the season. Mears' owners can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for one week, but they know he has a history of inconsistency, and there are no guarantees he will build on the outing next week at Texas. Mears still doesn't have much trade value in an FSR league, and he doesn't inspire anyone to slide him into their SCC lineups just yet. He's the one HMS guy I don't trust until I see another good finish or two.
The people who might really be squirming right now are owners of Kyle Busch, who suffered through his most forgettable day of the season so far on Sunday. Spending a considerable portion of the afternoon in the garage, Busch finished 38th, following a mediocre 17th-place finish at Bristol. Several drivers, however, encountered bad luck at Martinsville, and Busch just fell in line with the wrong crowd. You should expect him to come back strong at Texas, and you should remain fully confident that he can anchor a championship fantasy team.
Out of pure desperation to get back in the top 35 in owner points, McMurray finished eighth, a major feat considering he had not finished better than 22nd in the first five races and was coming off finishes of 40th and 43rd. I still would not put McMurray back into my FSR lineup for next week, though. He can easily follow up this one good showing with another stinker, and I am very thankful he is not on any of my FSR rosters.
Here's a quick-hitting look at some other notable drivers after Sunday's race:
Tony Stewart: Yes, he finished fifth, but his owners feel like Gordon's and Johnson's owners did during the first five races. They are just not getting enough from their best driver. Stewart wasn't a true contender for the win after his frustrating ending at Bristol, and you can't be anywhere near sure his first win of the year is just around the corner.
Carl Edwards: He ran out of the fuel at the end of the race, but he still managed to finish ninth. After winning the second and third races of the season, Edwards dealt with engine trouble at Atlanta and has missed the top 5 in the past two races. Not to worry, though. He's going to be a strong title contender, and you should keep him locked in no matter what format you play.
Clint Bowyer: He is quietly readying to go on a strong run of very good finishes. Bowyer keeps lurking near the top of the field, so don't be surprised when he wins in the near future. Bowyer has finished in the top 10 in the past three races, and it's a great time to trade for him in an FSR league, if you can. He is dependable, and sometimes spectacular.
Kurt Busch: He now has an average finish of 18.2 after a disastrous day at Martinsville and has not placed in the top 10 since the Daytona 500. He finished 33rd on Sunday, and those who have him on their fantasy rosters are very disappointed. Savvy race fans, however, know he can easily turn it around at any time, and I would not hesitate to buy low on him in an FSR league. He's simply better than this, and a win at any time in the next few weeks would not shock me at all.
Michael McDowell: I didn't have much confidence in him as he made his first Cup start, given his thin track record of experience coming into Martinsville. McDowell didn't embarrass himself, finishing 26th. That might be the best outing you could expect from McDowell on a regular basis, though, and I'm not about to label him as a SCC bargain just yet. In an FSR league, though, I'd rather have him right now than J.J. Yeley or Patrick Carpentier. As far as desperation picks go, you can do worse than McDowell.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
17dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information