- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Clint Bowyer might not have looked like the most deserving driver to earn a victory Saturday night at Richmond, but his fantasy owners will gleefully take the result. Sometimes, things don't go as planned in a given race and some fantasy owners get lucky. With a multicar wreck, late problems for the race leader and a controversial tussle between two star drivers, everything fell into place for Bowyer and his owners.
Bowyer has not looked dominant at all this season, but as we saw late in 2007, he is capable of getting hot at any time and sneaking up to win a race. He also must get some credit for starting in 31st and making his way to the top of the field. This certainly won't be the last victory his fantasy owners enjoy in 2008, and they can take it as a bonus. Had it not been for mishaps involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin, Bowyer would not have won, yet he still would have delivered a strong finish, at least a top-5. A very strong run of finishes might have begun for Bowyer at Richmond, and the unusual method of winning can only boost his confidence.
Earnhardt's fantasy owners are likely as miffed at Kyle Busch this morning as Earnhardt's die-hard fans are, yet even though his late misfortune doomed him to a 15th-place finish, he was clearly capable of winning his first race in two seasons. Earnhardt's owners had been frustrated by his inability to finish very strong coming into Saturday night. Although he had led laps in several early races, he had not been able to finish as a real threat to win a race. Obviously, Earnhardt's finish Saturday was not his fault, and it is a highly encouraging sign that he was in a position to win before the Busch mess. The first Earnhardt win of 2008 is not far away, and likely won't be the only one of the season.
Busch might be painted as a villain after Richmond, but his fantasy owners are certainly loving the results they are getting and have no time for controversies. Despite his run-in with Earnhardt, Busch still managed a second-place finish and also had a realistic chance of winning late in the event. Until further notice, Busch has to be regarded as the best driver in fantasy racing. Trades seem to be rare in ESPN FSR leagues, but Busch owners certainly will get some offers, and they should turn them down in most cases.
Because of late tire problems and the NASCAR penalties that quickly followed, Hamlin finished 24th after leading for 381 laps, a finish that certainly disappointed his fantasy owners in a major way. Hamlin was looking for the weekend sweep at his "home" track, and his bad luck obviously turned into good luck for Bowyer. Like owners of Earnhardt, though, Hamlin's owners should see a lot of positives in his overall performance and can realistically expect a run of strong finishes in the weeks ahead that certainly can propel their teams higher in the standings.
You can't say the same for those who center their squads on Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch. Both were involved in the big wreck that caused a stoppage in the race, and there are no real signs that either driver can turn things around for a series of quality finishes in the near future. Johnson rebounded recently for the only Hendrick Motorsports win of the season, yet he has gone back in the tank since. Luck certainly doesn't seem to be on his side, but his car has not looked great, either. Busch looks even more hopeless, and I would not hesitate to bench him in any format right now, although Johnson has to stay in your lineup. He could always bust out for another win at any time, yet he can't maintain consistency and looks like a boom-or-bust guy every week now.
You might be tempted to throw Matt Kenseth into the same basket after he was involved in yet another accident and finished in 38th. Yet I believe that Kenseth has been brushing with misfortune too much and that if he can stay out of harm's way for a few races in the near future, he has a realistic chance of rebuilding momentum and turning his season around. If you can buy low on Kenseth now in an FSR league, I would do it, but obviously, he shouldn't be in your thoughts in Stock Car Challenge leagues until he comes through with strong finishes in back-to-back races.
Juan Pablo Montoya also was involved in the big wreck and also was hurt by an early accident. Montoya was coming off a strong finish at Talladega and had been showing strong signs of progress on the Cup circuit before his forgettable run at Richmond. His owners should not be discouraged at all. Montoya's 32nd-place finish appears to be a real aberration, and he should bounce back quickly. Respectable finishes and occasionally strong outings will continue to be the norm for Montoya.
Here's a quick-hitting look at some other performances from Saturday night
Mark Martin: His third-place finish should be no surprise to anyone. A part-time schedule is working out great for Martin. FSR owners really miss him on his weeks off, and he remains the ultimate discount driver in the SCC who should be locked in every time he appears on the entry list. Whenever Martin sits out, don't hesitate to use Aric Almirola, who has shown the potential to run strong in the same ride.
Carl Edwards: Getting involved in the big crash was only one part of a challenging day, yet Edwards overcame the obstacles and still finished seventh. That was an impressive feat. More wins are on the way, and you should still have great confidence that you can use him as the anchor of a championship fantasy squad.
Jeff Gordon: At first glance, his ninth-place finish seems like another week of being good but not good enough, as he has been for most of the season so far. Yet when you consider he had to start at the back of the pack because of a starter change, his performance actually looks quite impressive. His first win of the season might not be too far away, yet at the same time, I am not convinced he will go on one of his patented runs of excellent finishes in the near future. I'm thinking a win soon, but a few more disappointing outings, as well.
Travis Kvapil: He finished in 16th, and his return to the Cup circuit this season has been a rather successful one. Kvapil has re-emerged in the field as one of the better bargains or end-of-the lineup drivers in many formats. He is a solid fourth driver in FSR leagues, especially those bigger than six teams, and it appears safe to use him regularly in the SCC.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.