- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Jeff Gordon had not won a race since June, and his owners were no doubt beginning to wonder if he could truly carry them to a league championship during these final weeks. Gordon has been more consistent than any other driver this season, though, and consistency is what wins fantasy and Nextel Cup championships. Bold moves during dramatic finishes help as well. Although he appeared destined for a second-place finish on Sunday, Gordon gave his owners a major boost toward their league championships with a thrilling victory at Talladega on Sunday.
If you're a Gordon owner and lead your league after 30 races, you might be able to point to Gordon's winning pass in Sunday's race on the final lap as the defining moment of your season thus far. The Nextel Cup championship should come down to a battle between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. In many fantasy leagues, the title will come down to the owners of those two drivers as well. In salary cap-style games, which drivers you can surround Gordon and/or Johnson with will determine who wins your league or group.
Gordon grabbed his fifth win of the season in dramatic fashion, finishing a 2007 Talladega sweep in a race reminiscent of the first half of the season, in that the Hendrick drivers jumped to the front of the field when it mattered most. After hanging near the back of the pack for much of the afternoon -- likely to avoid the "big one" -- Gordon, Johnson and Casey Mears charged to the front together late in the race. They collectively moved into position to take the race away from Penske teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, and a determined Tony Stewart, who led 38 laps and seemed to have a great chance of winning for the first time at Talladega.
When it counted the most, though, Gordon shot in front of Stewart and ahead of Johnson. He now has 24 top-10 finishes and 18 top-5 showings, including four top-5 finishes in his last five races. Gordon overcame a pit road penalty and a 34th-place starting position. At one point, he fell as low as the 40th spot. Stewart seemed like the favorite to win the race, but ultimately finished eighth and now becomes one of many drivers who will be chasing Hendrick's dynamic duo during the final six races.
Stewart had one of the best cars on the track, and his owners can feel confident he is going to win at least one more race during the final six events. Stewart is 154 points behind Gordon, but he could get hot at any time and help his fantasy owners overcome everyone else for a league championship. Gordon's owners may be sitting on top in many leagues after 30 events, but they are still not assured of winning their league championships.
Johnson is only nine points behind Gordon and remains in prime position to repeat as champion, and his owners still have a terrific chance of winning their league championships. Johnson has finished in the top three in each of the past two races and in the top six in five of the past six events. Johnson also won two consecutive races at the beginning of September and is fully capable of dominant performances for more than a week at any time.
It's looking as though the Hendrick pair of Gordon and Johnson, along with Stewart, is going to decide both the Nextel Cup and fantasy league championships.
No luck, no glory
If there seemed to be one track at which Dale Earnhardt Jr. could pull off his first, and maybe only, win of the 2007 season, it would be Talladega, where he had a great history coming into Sunday's race. He had five wins and nine top-10 finishes at the site before Sunday. This has been a different year for Junior, though, and he suffered what has become a distinctively familiar result this season: a DNF (engine failure). It was his fourth DNF at Talladega, and his seventh of the disappointing 2007 season. While it might be a nice story to see Junior win one last race under the DEI banner, it probably won't happen in the final six races. Too many other drivers have much more at stake in these final weeks, and Junior simply can't seem to steer clear of bad luck. If he does not win in 2007, it would be the first time since his rookie season of 1999 that he did not win a race. While he might contend for more top-5 finishes in the weeks ahead, the window for Junior to win in 2007 seems to be nearly shut.
Don't forget Clint
He still might not be considered a favorite to win the Nextel Cup championship, especially with only one win so far, but Clint Bowyer will continue to reward his owners with strong finishes in the final events. He's actually ahead of Stewart in the standings, 63 points behind Gordon. He has finished 12th or better in each of the past five races, including 11th at Talladega. Don't be surprised to see Bowyer grab his second career win in one of the final six races.
Around the Track
Mears continues to be one of the best non-Chase drivers to have in your lineup every week. He has gotten more comfortable in the Hendrick program with each passing week and has finished eighth or better in each of the past four races.
Dave Blaney has been fighting hard to keep Bill Davis Racing in the top 35 in owners' points. He finished third on Sunday and now has Davis sitting in 35th. Look for more respectable finishes from Blaney in these important final weeks.
Juan Pablo Montoya hung near the top of the pack for much of the Talladega race but ultimately finished 15th. Montoya had a better run than his actual finish indicated, but he is still not reliable for fantasy purposes.
David Gilliland was never a factor as expected and finished 27th. Despite the disappointing outing, he'll remain a fine restrictor-plate bargain next year, especially now that he has Car of Tomorrow experience at plate tracks under his belt.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
The UAW-Ford 500 in Talladega was tight in the final laps, but the Hendrick boys won out in the end. Scott Engel predicts more of that.