- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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With a week off before the next official Sprint Cup race, and the conclusion of the first segment of the Stock Car Challenge, as well, it's a good time to reflect on what we have seen so far from some key drivers while also looking ahead to the rest of the season from the fantasy perspective.
Kyle Busch: He earned his third win on Saturday at Darlington, leading for 169 laps. Busch always had the potential to be dominant in the past at Hendrick Motorsports, but now it has all come together for him at Joe Gibbs Racing. It's difficult to envision him not being the anchor of many fantasy championship teams, even if he somehow slips a bit during the Chase for the Cup.
Carl Edwards: We have seen his best form at times, but I get the feeling there is a run of even more outstanding races ahead for Edwards. Kyle Busch's owners aren't going to simply coast to victory in ESPN FSR leagues. Edwards' owners will be right there with them, and you can bet he is going to be a major force later in the schedule. Last year, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson's owners battled it out for the top spot in many leagues. This year, it's going to be a Kyle Busch/Edwards world.
Jeff Gordon: His past two finishes -- ninth at Richmond coming from the back of the pack, and third at Darlington -- offer some real signs of hope. He did lead for 24 laps, but the real concern for Gordon's owners is he has yet to win a race and is expected to be more than just a regular top-10 contender. The first victory of the season isn't too far off, and it's still too early to assume he can't turn on the championship-style lights later in the season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Every week he leads laps, Junior Nation and his fantasy owners start to think "this could be the night." Yet he never seems to be able to finish with the same flourish and strength he shows earlier in races. He was part of an unfortunate incident at Richmond and the long-awaited win isn't far away in an actual points race. Once he feels the relief of ending the drought, a string of fine finishes will follow and he can be a fixture on a championship fantasy squad that has good balance around him.
Matt Kenseth: He has an average finish of 21.9 this season, and only one top-5 finish so far, but Kenseth finished sixth at Darlington and it's also still too early with him to assume that he can't put together a run of strong showings. Kenseth showed some inconsistency last year during the first half and he isn't looking like an anchor of a fantasy championship squad this year. In an FSR league, though, you likely won't be able to move him, so stick it out and wait for more consistent results to come.
Denny Hamlin: He is not mentioned often enough when it comes to the best drivers, yet it is hard to overlook his seven top-10 finishes and four top-5 showings so far. We may have not actually seen the best of Hamlin yet this year, and that's very encouraging for those of you who own him and scary for the rest of your league. Don't be surprised to see him push Kyle Busch and Edwards in what could be a very tight race in the Cup standings during the remainder of the schedule.
Kurt Busch: He finished 12th at Darlington, something of a relief to his owners when you consider his average finish this season is 22.5. Busch has only one top-10 finish, which came in the first race of the season, and three DNFs. He can certainly break out with one of his patented mini hot streaks during the summer, but it looks like he will be inconsistent at best all season long. While you can easily just keep him off your SCC roster, there will be more frustrating times ahead in FSR leagues.
Jimmie Johnson: He finished 13th at Darlington and has an average finish of 13.8. That's simply not good enough for a guy who was drafted first overall in many FSR leagues. We thought his bouts of early disappointments were over when he won at Richmond, but he has not finished in the top 10 in the three events since. There's still a lot of season left, but it's hard to envision Johnson going on more than just a short run of above-average performances at some point. He can't carry your team to a fantasy championship by himself this season.
Tony Stewart: The move to Toyota has not produced optimum results, yet that may be pure coincidence. Stewart has dealt with a lot of bad luck so far, including an early wreck at Darlington that doomed him to a 21st-place finish. Yet when he has been able to steer clear of mishaps, Stewart has rarely been able to flash his best form for a consistent spell. Yet he is always known as a great later-season driver, so you certainly cannot begin to panic yet. Good luck may be ahead, and things will balance out for Stewart.
Greg Biffle: He was looking good at Darlington and could have vied for the victory if not for an engine problem that led to a last-place finish. Biffle led for 95 laps and certainly deserved a better result. He has not been reliable in the past six races after starting the season well, but Biffle's goal this year appears to be regaining respectability and delivering regular quality finishes rather than dominating like he used to be capable of a few years ago. He'll get back on track quickly and will be a very good No. 2 driver in FSR leagues the rest of the year.
Kevin Harvick: His performances have been erratic in the past four races, but overall, Harvick is having a respectable season so far, with an average finish of 13.5. More respectable finishes are ahead, and Harvick could really come through with his best performances of the season during the Chase. He may not look like a top contender now, but he can certainly help push your team up in the standings late in the season when it counts the most.
Clint Bowyer: Last season, he charged to the forefront during the Chase after coming through with quality finishes while flying a bit under the radar until the final races. Bowyer appears to be trending in a similar direction this season. He has seven top-10 finishes and a win already, and another late-season surge could really boost your fantasy team to the top. If you're patient and can deal with some good, but not great outings while waiting for the breakout stretch, you'll be nicely rewarded by Bowyer.
Martin Truex Jr.: Overall, the average finish of 17.8 obviously doesn't look too good. Yet Truex has been a stronger contender recently, with two top-10 finishes and three top-15 outings in his past four races. There will be some bumps in the road, yet you can still be quite confident in him as your No. 2 driver in an FSR league.
Jeff Burton: You know what you are getting here. An average finish of 8.1 is very nice, but you will get mostly top-10 finishes and the occasional push for the win. He is the ideal No. 2 fantasy driver in any format this season.
Ryan Newman: While he has looked like a top driver again at times, the results have been erratic and you seemingly go into every week not knowing what to fully expect. That isn't about to change. He is going to drive you crazy all year long in an FSR league, yet he is the model SCC driver. Based on past results at any given track, you can either choose to keep or drop him at any time.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.