Engel: The good, the bad and the ugly
Here are some important and interesting trends and tidbits of note after the first six Nextel Cup races, with some additional fantasy analysis.
• Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton are the top two drivers in the Nextel Cup standings, yet neither has a win yet. For Gordon, this early lack of victories suggests he should make a strong push to end up in Victory Lane in the next few races, especially after the frustrating near miss at Martinsville. Burton, however, has only one victory in the past six seasons, and it's likely he is performing at peak level. A slight drop-off in consistently high finishes seems more realistic than an upcoming surge toward a win. Burton already has five top-10 finishes, and his excellent luck seems destined to run out at some point soon.
• Denny Hamlin seems ready to erase any talk of a sophomore slump. He finished third at Martinsville, and though Hamlin hasn't delivered consistently high finishes yet, he has managed to place in the top 20 in five consecutive races. Hamlin took the pole at Martinsville and appears to be on the verge of a very strong run over the next few races.
• Clint Bowyer is steering clear of bad luck and enjoying a great start to his sophomore season. He has finished in the top 11 in four of the past five races and sits seventh overall in the points standings. Although a win would be a major coup for Bowyer this year, he appears capable of contending regularly and is a perfect complement to a superstar driver as the second-strongest selection in your lineup right now. Bowyer's early success is no mirage, and he should be very reliable for the rest of the season.
• Elliott Sadler sits 14th in the Nextel Cup standings right now, which doesn't appear to be too shabby. He has been pretty mediocre, however, since finishing in sixth place at Daytona to open the season. Sadler has only one finish in the top 15 since then, though, despite having qualified in the top five three times in the past four races. Sadler seems destined to continue to drop in the standings.
• After three encouraging top-20 finishes to open the season, J.J. Yeley has started to fall off. He has not finished in the top 25 in the past three races. Yeley has run rather well for much of the season so far, and his owners should expect a turnaround very soon as long as he continues to avoid mishaps. Yeley qualified fifth at Martinsville, and consistently better qualifying runs can only help him perform up to his potential more often.
• Now is a good time to take a chance on Ryan Newman, who could be on the brink of a solid run. Newman took the pole at Atlanta but then a crash ruined his day at Bristol. However, he bounced back for his third consecutive top-15 finish at Martinsville. Newman sits 20th in the points standings, and that makes him a good value pickup right now. If he can start to develop more consistency, some top-10 finishes definitely appear reachable in the near future.
• Carl Edwards has not been able to maintain any level of consistency in the Nextel Cup Series so far, but he is dominating the Busch Series. He won his second consecutive race this past week at Nashville, extending his lead in those standings to 321 points over Dave Blaney. At some point, it appears likely that Edwards' great success will translate into more regular solid finishes in the Cup Series. Edwards has only two top-10 finishes so far, yet a very strong series of races should be ahead for him soon.
• Kurt Busch has looked good overall so far this season and has finished in the top 15 in two of the past three races. Busch seemed to take well to the Car of Tomorrow by the second race with the new ride, and he finished 12th at Martinsville. Busch looked sharp in recent COT testing at Richmond, posting top-10 speeds in three of the four sessions. He's going to be a solid choice in upcoming COT races.
• SceneDaily.com has reported that Casey Mears will be one of six Chevrolet drivers using the new Chevrolet R07 engine next week at Texas. The new engine reportedly is designed with more modern parts and is supposed to be more durable. Mears will need a lot more than a new engine, though, to regain the faith of fantasy players, as all the changes in the world don't seem likely to help him reach his considerable potential. The switch to Hendrick Motorsports has produced only one finish inside the top 20 so far, and Mears has been the one failure among the Hendrick drivers.
• Paul Menard has been a big disappointment so far. He was expected to be a sleeper candidate capable of delivering some decent finishes, but so far, he has qualified for only three races and has not finished in the top 30 in his past two. In fact, Dale Earnhardt Inc. has mustered just three top-10 finishes among its three drivers so far, two by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the past two races. The whole team is risky from a fantasy perspective. Even Junior himself, who needs a bit more than just two strong finishes to fully restore the faith of fantasy owners. Right now, it appears to be a given to avoid Menard and Martin Truex Jr.
• The struggles of Toyota so far this season have been well-documented. It will be a minor surprise to see Michael Waltrip in the field anytime soon, and at some point, Dale Jarrett could fail to qualify on speed. Yet there have been some minor glimmers of hope. Jeremy Mayfield has qualified in the past two races, starting 13th at Martinsville before car troubles ruined his day. Brian Vickers has finished in the top 15 in two of the three races he has been able to qualify for. But still, that's not enough to justify using any Toyota driver yet.
• The Ginn Racing No. 1 U.S. Army Car should fare much better at Texas with Mark Martin back behind the wheel. Regan Smith didn't exactly embarrass himself in the two races in Martin's place. He finished 25th and 26th, not bad for an inexperienced driver in the COT on short tracks. Smith will make a decent bargain choice, especially in challenge-style games, when he gets the opportunity to race again this season. A top-25 finish isn't a bad showing from the final, lowest-priced driver on your roster, and that tactic will allow you to front-load your squad with more top-level drivers.