- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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There are lots of changes that will generate much excitement during the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup season. The Chase for the Cup field has expanded, victories are now worth more, and there are new cars to offer new challenges. The Chase for the Cup could be more thrilling than ever before, and it remains to be seen how drivers will ultimately handle the Car of Tomorrow. Of course, there are the expected driver switches to new teams or rides, and an interesting rookie class, this time with one notable possible star. Winning the Nextel Cup could be more of an admirable accomplishment than in the past. Picking a quality fantasy racing lineup or drafting a solid squad will take a lot of research and preparation. We get you started with a list of our top fantasy drivers for the 2007 season, based on both straight draft value plus reliability in challenge-style games, such as ESPN.com's Stock Car Challenge. Most leagues are based directly on Nextel Cup points, making fantasy play easy to score and follow.
1. Tony Stewart, No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet: Stewart barely missed the Chase last season, and then drove like he belonged in the field more than many other drivers late in the year. Look for him to carry that momentum into 2007 as he will be out to put a season of inconsistency behind him. Stewart earned three of his five victories during the Chase in 2006. He's a popular pick, and I'm going with the general consensus that he is going to win his second title in three seasons in 2007.
2. Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet: He finally won his first championship in '06, getting rid of the "near-miss" label that had haunted him. No driver has repeated as a champion since 1998, but Johnson should make a strong push. He's a safe pick on all types of tracks, and can easily contend in any week even if he doesn't start near the top of the pack. Johnson was especially strong during the Chase last year, as he finished in the top two in five consecutive races prior to the season finale. Like Stewart, he'll carry his late success into '07.
3. Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Goodwrench/Reese's Chevrolet: He set a new career high with five wins in '06, and Harvick finished in the Top 15 five times and in the Top 10 20 times. He is becoming a force on just about every type of track and consistency should be his strong suit in '07, even if he doesn't match his victory total from last year. He has a fine relationship with crew chief Todd Berrier, and he's very comfortable with the Richard Childress team. Harvick finished in the top 10 in four of the final five '06 races.
4. Matt Kenseth, No. 17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford: If you are in a straight draft, Kenseth is a prime choice, because he offers great reliability. He had 21 top 10 finishes last season, even though some of his performances were disappointing during the Chase run. Kenseth should correct any late-season issues he had last year and will again be considered among the championship contenders. In challenge-style leagues, you should steer clear of him in road course races, but he can be one of the anchors of your squad throughout the remainder of the schedule.
5. Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet: He rebounded from a disappointing 2005 season to make the Chase last year, even though he was plagued by inconsistency and had a disturbing seven did-not-finish (DNFs). There are also concerns that personal pressures could affect his '07 performances. But Gordon ran well late last year and will enter the new season with a lot to prove, he could spur him towards a strong drive for another championship. He could also handle the Car Of Tomorrow better than many other drivers. Gordon was often frustrated last year, and he won only twice, but look for much better results in '07.
6. Greg Biffle, No. 16 3M/Subway Ford: 2006 was a baffling season for Biffle, and you can look for him to come back strong in '07. He could be undervalued in some leagues, but don't let him slip by if you can nab him. There could be a minor adjustment to a new crew chief, but Pat Tryson is a proven winner and should ultimately help Biffle regain status among the contenders this year. He is another driver that is also expected to handle the Car of Tomorrow well.
7. Kasey Kahne, No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge: Kahne led all drivers with six wins last season and he should be even more reliable for fantasy purposes in '07. The new rule changes that will put a higher emphasis on wins could be a boon for Kahne, who simply needs to erase the stigma that he is a boom or bust driver every week. Don't be surprised to see Kahne contend for his first championship this year. He will only continue to improve.
8. Carl Edwards, No. 99 Office Depot/Scotts/Roundup Ford: His '06 season was very disappointing after his promising and '05 campaign, but Edwards did finish well last season and should be much more reliable for fantasy purposes this upcoming year. Edwards did not win a race last year, but expect him to regain the form that led to four victories in '05. Edwards is back with crew chief Bob Osborne, and the two have a very comfortable working relationship that should put Edwards back in the Chase this season.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet: Junior is being surrounded by some controversy as he is in the final year of his contract with Dale Earnhardt Inc. But he still has a lot of upside and his relationship with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. will continue to improve and pay dividends on the track. Junior finished well in '06 after a mostly erratic run, but he should be dependable enough to easily make the Chase this season. Junior still has the pure ability to be a strong contender.
10. Kyle Busch, No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet: He might not contend for the title, but there is no question that Busch is one of the most talented drivers on the circuit and he is only going to get better. He is only 21, though, and he needs to continue to mature while keeping his focus and emotions in check. Busch had 18 top 10 finishes in '06 and he should continue his rise to prominence this year. Busch is going to win more than the one race he did last season.
11. Jeff Burton, No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet: He was a very dependable fantasy driver for much of '06, and you can look for another solid campaign this season.
12. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Federal Express Chevrolet: There are some concerns he will fall off after an impressive rookie year, but he should still be a contender for the Chase.
13. Kurt Busch, No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge: Look for him to show that he is more comfortable in a Dodge this year, and he could also handle the Car of Tomorrow well.
14. Casey Mears, No. 25 GMAC Chevrolet: The move to Hendrick Motorsports gives him some renewed upside, but he still has a lot to prove.
15. Clint Bowyer, No. 07 Jack Daniels Chevrolet: He had a very promising rookie season and he could contend for a spot in the Chase in 2007.
16. Scott Riggs, No. 10 Valvoline/Stanley Tools Dodge: He seems to improve every season, and should start to develop even more consistency in '07.
17. Ryan Newman, No. 12 Alltel Dodge: He continued to slide last season, and didn't win any races. Newman will be hard-pressed to rebound this year, and he's looking like a very risky pick.
18. Elliott Sadler, No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge: Over a full season, he could perform respectably in Mayfield's old ride.
19. Jamie McMurray, No. 26 IRWIN/Sharpie/Crown Royal Ford: He's under a lot of pressure to bounce back after a very disappointing '06. He could respond in a positive manner.
20. Martin Truex Jr., No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet: After a challenging first season in '06, Truex should show definite signs of improvement this upcoming year.
The Best of the Rest
21. Brian Vickers
22. Juan Pablo Montoya
23. Reed Sorenson
24. Ricky Rudd
25. Bobby Labonte
26. David Gilliland
27. Joe Nemechek
28. Paul Menard
29. Robby Gordon
30. Tony Raines
31. Dale Jarrett
32. J.J. Yeley
33. David Stremme
34. Jeff Green
35. Dave Blaney
35. Sterling Marlin
36. Kyle Petty
37. David Ragan
38. Jeremy Mayfield
39. David Reutimann
40. Michael Waltrip
15dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information