- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Considering the season he has had to date, it wasn't surprising to see Carl Edwards dominate at Texas on Sunday. He notched his third win in seven races so far this season, reassuring his fantasy owners that they can lean on him to lead them to league championships this year.
Edwards led for a race-high 123 laps and now has led for a total of 306 laps so far in 2008. He ranked first among all drivers Sunday in fastest laps run with 90, and he spent all of the 339 laps in the top 15. Edwards has 312 of the fastest laps run this season, by far the best in the Sprint Cup field. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ranks second in that category with 165.
Edwards was second-best in average running position at Texas, though, with a mark of 2.3. Jimmie Johnson led that category with an average running position of 2.2, and while he didn't seize any headlines, his second-place finish is certainly worthy of prime space when you are considering fantasy outlooks for the weeks ahead.
The Hendrick Motorsports winless drought seems like an old story after seven races, and it likely isn't going to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. who ends the surprising trend. Earnhardt took the pole and led for 31 laps, but he fell out of contention for the win and finished 12th, just the second time this season he didn't place in the top 10. He has an average finish of 11.0 and is ultradependable for fantasy racing purposes, but Earnhardt hasn't been able to finish well. He has led in five races for 268 laps, but wins have eluded him. His best finish in the past three events has been fifth.
Jeff Gordon might be motivated to rebound strongly after finishing 43rd at Texas, but Johnson is the HMS driver whose car will be headed to Victory Lane sometime in the near future. He has been slowly regaining his championship form, and even if he isn't going to be quite as successful as he was the past two seasons, Johnson will be the first Hendrick driver to earn a win in 2008, and that could very well set off a hot streak for him. Edwards and Kyle Busch might ultimately beat him out in his quest for a third consecutive Cup championship, but Johnson is showing clear signs that he remains an elite fantasy driver who can still be the anchor of a balanced roster. If you have a solid crew of four or five drivers with Johnson leading the way, there's no reason to stop entertaining hopes of taking your league title.
Johnson had only one top-10 finish in the first five races of 2008, and he did not place better than 13th in four races outside of a second-place finish at California during that span. The "real" Johnson, however, began to re-emerge at Martinsville, where he led for a season-best 135 laps. On Sunday, he led for 65 laps and had a great car that handled well. In fact, late in the race, there might not have been a better car on the track than the No. 48. But Edwards was better overall and was able to finish what he started.
Johnson is on the verge of grabbing the spotlight, though, and the owners who have exhibited a patient approach with him will see a nice payoff in the next few events. Johnson will continue to finish in the top 5 consistently in the weeks ahead. Earnhardt has been the best HMS driver in the first seven races, but Johnson is about to prove he is still the largest luminary on a star-studded cast. This will be a great week to get him back onto your Stock Car Challenge roster.
Gordon was the most reliable driver in fantasy racing last year, but he certainly hasn't been himself so far, even starting to conjure up memories of his 2006 season, when he finished sixth in the Cup standings and was not nearly as consistent as expected. He won only twice in '06 -- his lowest victory total in any season since 1994. Gordon has an average finish of 19.7 after his last-place showing at Texas. He started 18th, battled car troubles and faded quickly, then hit the wall and went to the garage. His day ended up as an extended testing session in a ride that frustrated him from the beginning of the race.
Gordon's second-place showing at Martinsville the week before was highly encouraging and indicates he can rebound right away. He has failed to finish in the top 10 in three of the past five races, though, and a top-5 showing at Phoenix on Saturday night will be a victory for him. Gordon's owners must be concerned with his erratic start to the season, and in FSR leagues it's going to be difficult to deal him right now and get proper value in return. Gordon's owners will simply have to endure the bumpy times and hope he starts to go on one of his patented runs of strong finishes very soon. Gordon certainly can break out at any time, so it's too early to panic about him yet.
Another top driver who has been somewhat frustrating in terms of fantasy results is Tony Stewart. He did place seventh at Texas and now has five top-10 showings in the first seven races. Nonetheless, Stewart has not been a real contender for a win in most weeks -- certainly not in the past three races, even though he has finished in the top 10 in two of them.
Most experts, though, have labeled Stewart as a notoriously slow starter in every season. If you get the run of outstanding summer and late-season finishes he regularly produces, you can put them together with his early results and you'll have a great overall outlook. Much as it is for Gordon, it's too early to start complaining about Stewart.
It's a long season, and the one thing we have learned during the first seven events is that it will be a wide-open race for the Cup title this season, meaning a lot of fantasy racing standings will ultimately be closer than they were in 2007, when Johnson and Gordon owners stayed comfortably ahead of the rest of the field in most cases.
Here's a quick-hitting look at some other notable drivers after Sunday's race:
Mark Martin: His eighth-place finish was his best so far in 2008, and he has placed in the top 10 in two of his past three events. The No. 8 car seems to have a very good setup right now, and Martin and Aric Almirola are worthy of regular starting lineup choices in any format.
Jamie McMurray: He finished 14th at one of his best tracks on Sunday after placing a season-best eighth at Martinsville. He has shed an early slump, but I still would not trust him as a regular starter just yet, and he isn't getting into my SCC lineup anytime soon, either.
Paul Menard: He has finished inside the top 20 in three of the past four races. Menard appears to be on the cusp of realizing his potential and should continue to deliver respectable finishes on a regular basis this season. There still will be occasional bad outings, but he's a good bargain pickup in any league.
Casey Mears: The optimism that surrounded him in his first season at HMS is quickly slipping away. He placed 22nd on Sunday and has an average finish of 25.4 so far this year, with just one top-10 showing. In FSR leagues larger than six teams, you must stick with him, but I would avoid him in other formats for now.
Kurt Busch: Busch is truly a top driver who has given his owners reasons to worry so far. Busch has not finished in the top 10 since the Daytona 500, and after placing 23rd at Texas, he has an average finish of 18.9. Most of his FSR owners have no choice but to wait out the cold spell. Busch is another guy who can reel off a run of impressive showings at any time, although he won't be on a level with guys like Gordon and Stewart in the overall picture, and that's a concern. Plan to sell high on him when he starts to embark on a run of strong outings.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.