- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon is more than just a four-time Nextel Cup champion. He's the Nextel Cup points leader after six races as he guns for the fifth title of his illustrious career. He is also a reigning fantasy football champion after earning his first league championship in 2006.
Gordon, widely hailed as one of NASCAR's greatest drivers for more than a decade, began his run to the top of the fantasy football world just a few years ago.
"I've been playing for about three or four years now," Gordon said. "My public relations rep, Jon Edwards, was starting a new league and he asked me to play."
Gordon quickly became a dedicated fantasy owner in his first season. Although he lacked experience, he instantly was transformed into a passionate fantasy owner.
"I didn't understand why so many people were involved in fantasy leagues and had no clue what to expect the first season," he said. "Needless to say, I was hooked after the first weekend."
Gordon said fantasy football quickly changed the way he viewed pro football. He also realized that to keep up with other fantasy football players, he constantly had to be on top of the latest news and information.
"Before fantasy football, I followed teams and the stars of the league. Now, you have to keep up with what your fourth-string wide receiver is doing, and whether you should replace him with an up-and-coming undrafted player who is starting to see more playing time," Gordon said. "I know I watch more football now that I'm in a fantasy football league."
Gordon, who was born in Vallejo, Calif., followed the San Francisco 49ers in their glory days. "If I had been playing fantasy football back then, I probably would have traded my entire team just to have Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, or Steve Young and Jerry Rice," he said. But he does not let his allegiances collide with his fantasy strategies. "I don't let it affect the draft, and that's probably a good thing, considering San Francisco's past couple of seasons, although Frank Gore had a great year in 2006."
Gordon said he is also a fan of the Carolina Panthers now.
Playing fantasy football has helped Gordon gain more knowledge about the NFL, but there is always the challenge to absorb more, he said: "With that increased knowledge comes a feeling that you don't know much at all. The more you learn, the more you realize you didn't know that much to begin with."
It's not always easy for Gordon to keep up on the constant flow of information and trends, especially with a busy schedule that includes many races on the same Sundays as NFL games. So he shares his team with Penny Copen, the public relations representative for longtime NASCAR standout Dale Jarrett.
"We'll talk the weekend of the game about the guys we should play depending on the matchups and then she sets the lineup. We kind of went with the game plan this year that 'When in doubt, play your starters,'" Gordon said.
That plan worked as hoped in the end, but Gordon and Copen had to overcome several obstacles on their way to their first title. The pair had to deal with injuries to Shaun Alexander and Donovan McNabb. The key to staying competitive, Gordon said, was picking up the right free agents at the right times.
"At one point, we went through four quarterbacks and basically didn't have anyone to play," he said. "But, we were lucky enough that Vince Young was still available and we picked him up right when he started having big games. Another big free agent we picked up early in the season was Marques Colston. We got him after the second game of the season, and he ended up playing like a No. 1 wide receiver."
Although McNabb was a big part of Gordon's early 2006 success as a fantasy owner, good roster management and maintaining an optimum balance of quality talents kept his team at the top of the league.
"We really didn't have one guy that was 'the' player. We just had guys that had big games at the right time all season," he said. "Probably the best example of that was the game Joseph Addai had against Philadelphia in [Week 13]. We really had no shot of beating the team we were playing because they had guys like LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees and a few other guys that were having monster years. Then, Addai goes off in that Indy-Philly game and scores 44 fantasy points."
Gordon notes players such as Jeremy Shockey and Laveranues Coles helped him contend throughout the season. Gordon's league includes many others who play key roles in NASCAR, although there are no other drivers in his league.
"We've got journalists, PR reps, business managers -- even ESPN is well represented with [analysts] Mike Massaro and Marty Smith," he said.
With a laugh, Gordon said the trash-talking with his leaguemates is definitely the most fun element of being in a fantasy league.
"Naturally, we like to discuss past games or upcoming matchups at the track" he said. "Of course, you're looking to talk trash in the garage area if you've just won and you're looking to avoid people if you just lost."
Looking back at his 2006 championship season, Gordon said sticking with his regular starters most of the time proved to be the strategy that worked the best for his squad.
"Situations come up where you think you should play a backup because of a favorable matchup, but all you do is end up second-guessing your choices and end up making bad decisions," he said. "For the most part, it worked out."
Gordon fully acknowledges the impact and surging popularity of fantasy sports, even on the Nextel Cup circuit. Gordon, of course, is one of the most coveted drivers in fantasy racing, and NASCAR fans often remind him of that fact.
"I think the growth of fantasy racing is good for the sport," he said. "I was amazed the first time a fan approached me and told me that I had to do better in the races because I was hurting them in their fantasy racing league."
Gordon certainly is hurting no one is fantasy racing this year, as he already has four top-3 finishes in six races and has not placed lower than 12th yet. With the expansion of the Chase for the Cup field this year and the debut of the Car of Tomorrow, Gordon is facing new challenges and still excelling as usual.
"The competition gets tougher every year. The team that really can perform well -- not necessarily dominate, but have consistency -- is the one that's going to win," he said. "You can just sneak your way into the Chase, but if you've hit on some things and momentum is on your side, you can still win that championship."
The Chase for the Cup will, of course, coincide with the fantasy football season in 2007. But Gordon will be ready to defend his league title and already is prepared to make a strong push for his fifth NASCAR championship when the Chase begins later this season.
"The cool thing about the Chase is that when you get into it, everybody feels like they have a shot and can win it. The key is to not have DNFs during that time, and if you do, you had better come back really strong. That's pretty much how it's been every year."
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.