- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Last weekend, Jeff Gordon was simply not going to be denied in the quest for his first victory of 2007. Gordon is the ultimate fantasy driver right now as he is now on a path that could lead to his fifth Nextel Cup Championship. In Stock Car Challenge, building a winning squad has become an exercise of locking in Gordon and then working from there. Other top drivers have enjoyed some outstanding weeks, but no one has been as consistently excellent as Gordon.
As we move to Talladega, Gordon is an elite choice again, as he usually is a dominant force at restrictor-plate tracks. Hendrick Motorsports will always deliver fine showings at plate tracks from its best drivers. In the first plate race of the season at Daytona, though, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch had the best cars, even though they didn't win because of a crash. Of course, you can't forget the No. 8 car, either. Wrecks are always a big danger in plate races, so any driver could be put out of the race at any time.
VICTORY LANE SPECIAL
Tony Stewart (23.8): Now that Gordon has ended a somewhat frustrating run of near-misses, it's time for Stewart to get his due. Stewart has not been as consistently outstanding as Gordon so far, but he's had his share of disappointments, including losing the lead late to Gordon at Phoenix last week. If anyone is going to keep one of the best Hendrick cars out of victory lane this week, it will be Stewart. He wants to put the bitterness of Phoenix and Daytona behind him, and he has never won at Talladega, another great motivating factor. Stewart finished second in the first Talladega race of 2006, and a win at the site seems long overdue.
Jeff Gordon (25.1): Yes, he is the most expensive driver in the game, but he is well worth it. Make some sacrifices in your other lineup spots, especially the fourth and fifth slots, and you can get him on your squad. If he's already locked into your lineup at a lower price, it's simply a matter of building around him. Gordon could easily earn his second consecutive win this week, and appears to be a cinch for a top-five finish. Gordon has four career wins at Talladega, and it should be noted he earned a top-10 finish at Daytona earlier this year after starting 42nd in the first plate race of 2007.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (22.0): It almost seems like going against the natural order of things if you don't have Junior on your roster in a restrictor-plate race. His early inconsistency has led him to have a rather friendly price tag for a top-level driver heading to one of his best tracks. Junior has five career victories at Talladega, and he could make a serious push for his first win of the year this week. You can't really trust Junior overall this year, but he is a solid pick this week.
Kurt Busch (21.5): His recent finishes haven't really reflected how good he has looked overall, and better showings certainly seem to be ahead. Busch is another good plate-track pick at an acceptable price tag. More top-10 finishes seem to be ahead for him, and he should challenge for a top-five showing this week. Busch has never won at Talladega, but he has nine top-10s in 12 career Nextel Cup races at the site. Busch came through with third and seventh-place finishes at Talladega in 2006.
Jamie McMurray (19.6): He endured a disappointing showing at Phoenix, but McMurray has still been very solid overall and should contend for another top-10 finish at Talladega. McMurray scored a fifth-place finish at the site in the first race of last season, and he is running even better this season. McMurray already has three top-10 finishes at Talladega, and while he likely won't challenge for his first win ever at the site, McMurray should give you a very strong finish for the price tag.
Bobby Labonte (18.1): He delivered his best finish of the season so far last Saturday, placing eighth at Phoenix. Labonte is quietly building some positive momentum this year and he can at least give you a top-15 showing this week for the price. Labonte already has three top-20 finishes so far this year and he came in 21st at Daytona. Labonte earned a 10th-place finish in the second Talladega race last season. In his career, Labonte has 11 top-10 finishes at Talladega, and he has won at the site before. Labonte is another driver who has looked better than some of his finishes to this point in '07.
Regan Smith (12.1): It may be a pain to regularly move Mark Martin in and out of your lineup, but a minor bonus is that when he doesn't race, you can move Smith into your lineup. When Martin sits out, Smith hops into his ride with his ultralow price tag and allows you to front-load your squad with high-priced star drivers. Smith has finished 25th and 26th in his two races subbing for Martin so far this season. Another top-25 finish for the price certainly isn't a bad tradeoff when it frees you up to spend more on other top lineup slots. Smith is the ultimate Stock Car Challenge bargain pick for this week.
Brian Vickers (19.0) won the second Talladega race last year, but he is much less of a threat to push for a top spot in a Toyota this season. Jeff Green (16.8) finished seventh in the second Talladega race of 2006. Sterling Marlin (16.4) has 17 career top-10 finishes at Talladega, and he could finish in the top 20 this week. Ricky Rudd (15.7) has 13 career top-10 finishes at Talladega. Martin Truex Jr. (18.9) finished fifth in the second Talladega race of '06.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
Scott Engel previews this weekend's race for ESPN.com's Stock Car Challenge.