- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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It seems like we are waiting every week for Tony Stewart to put bad luck behind him and simply dominate a race, or at least come through with a dramatic victory. Either occurrence could conceivably lead to a hot streak that should make Stewart a solid anchor of many fantasy teams again.
Stewart, however, can't seem to escape frustration this season, and neither can his fantasy owners. Once again, on Sunday at Talladega, Stewart had a car that looked like it could push Jeff Gordon for a victory. A pit-road penalty, however, put Stewart a lap down early, and he had to climb back into contention. To top off another disappointing day, Stewart was knocked into the wall during the green-white-checkered finish and ended the day in 28th place. He had managed to lead for seven laps after starting 32nd, yet the bottom line once again ticked off his fantasy owners.
Since he wrecked in the season opener at Daytona, when he seemed to be headed for an exciting victory over Kurt Busch, Stewart's season has been marked by inconsistent finishes, even at times when he has looked like the best driver on the track. A pit-road penalty cost him a chance to win at California, he was done in by a fuel pump problem at Bristol, and he endured through more than one mishap at Texas. Then, when it appeared he was finally poised to take his first win of 2007 in Phoenix, he was edged out by a determined Gordon.
Stewart has failed to come through with a top-20 finish in two of the past three races and three of the past five overall. There seems to be no real way of reassuring his owners, either. Stewart seems to be good enough to win in certain weeks, and then simply encounters bad luck. Other times, he appears to have a contending car, but he simply isn't quite good enough to win. The general line of thinking so far has often been that frustration will lead to great determination by Stewart, but that just hasn't been the case. So what next for his fantasy owners?
If you play in a challenge-style/salary cap game, the answer is simple. You should avoid Stewart until he starts to string a few very good races again. There are certainly other drivers in the same salary range, or even a bit lower, who can offer more consistent finishes and/or give you more roster flexibility. In a league where drivers get limited starts over the full season, you should consider reserving Stewart when a possible replacement has a good history at a particular track. Stewart could come on stronger later in the season and it would be more useful to plug him in when he is doing better.
Of course, there are also leagues in which you have limited or very little roster flexibility, and you simply have to hope things get better for Stewart. It's encouraging to think that he is such a good driver, the slump simply has to end sometime soon. If anyone can come out of this funk in the near future, it's Stewart. There are still a lot of races left and your fantasy season is far from over, even if it doesn't look so great as a Stewart owner right now.
Many lesser-name and surprising drivers were among the contenders at Talladega. Sterling Marlin and Jeff Green both ran near the top of the field early and came through with top-20 finishes. Marlin will need more than one good outing to regain the faith of fantasy owners, but Green has managed two consecutive top-15 outings and he's a fine value pick right now. David Gilliland finished fourth, his best showing of the season, besting his eighth-place showing at Daytona. Gilliland has clearly marked himself as a restrictor plate "specialist" for fantasy purposes. David Stremme also enjoyed his best finish of the season, placing eighth. Stremme has clearly been one of the best value drivers of the 2007 season so far. Martin Truex Jr. finished.
10th, and all he needs to do to remain a Chase for the Cup contender is avoid bad luck.
Did Jeff Burton peak at Texas? His great start to the season seemed to build towards his exiting win three races ago, and he hasn't been a real strong contender in the past two races. Burton finished 13th at Phoenix, and then an accident at Talladega led to his worst finish of 2007 so far, a 34th-place showing. Burton's magic seems to have worn off, but there's no real reason to worry for the longer term. Burton simply was in the wrong place in the wrong time on Sunday, and he should rebound on Saturday at Richmond.
Around the track
• The finishes of Clint Bowyer have progressively gotten worse over the past four races. He finished 11th, 16th and 22nd in the three races leading up to Talladega, where a tire issue and ensuing spinout led to a 35th-place finish. Bowyer can certainly bounce back quickly, but it's a good idea to reserve or deactivate him for now in formats where you have roster flexibility.
• Regan Smith placed 24th, but performed better overall than his finish might indicate. Smith led for a lap and was even running in the top 10 late in the race. He will continue to be a fine bargain in salary cap/challenge style games when he fills in for Mark Martin.
• Kasey Kahne came through with one of his best performances of the season, finishing 12th. Kahne placed seventh at Daytona, so he's worth considering at least for any more upcoming plate races. One good finish, however, isn't going to suddenly erase his string of seven consecutive races in which he didn't finish higher than 19th coming into Talladega.
• Kurt Busch finished third, his best showing of the season so far, and his second top-10 finish of the year. Busch has looked much better overall than his finishes would indicate, and he could make a strong push for his first win of the season. He may be an undervalued fantasy driver in some formats.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports. You can contact Scott here.
Scott Engel recaps the weekend in stock car racing and what it means for future weeks.