It appeared that Jimmie Johnson was going to make a strong bid for his latest victory at Lowe's Motor Speedway for much of the race on Saturday night. When he spun out late, though, it cost him a shot at yet another Charlotte victory, and not only changed the championship picture in the Nextel Cup series, but also the outlook in fantasy racing leagues for the final five weeks of the season.
Jeff Gordon was able to hold on for his second consecutive victory without a challenge from Johnson, and now holds a 68-point lead over Johnson in the standings. While that certainly is not an insurmountable edge for Johnson to overcome, Gordon is clearly in control of his own destiny as he seeks his fifth championship. Clint Bowyer is only 78 points behind, and he is certainly not out of the running, either. Barring a lot of bad luck for Gordon in the next few weeks, though, he is in good position to win his first tile since 2001.
For Gordon, that will likely mean strong finishes over aggressive driving the rest of the way. If Gordon can maintain consistency in the final five races while avoiding any mishaps, he'll likely be able to sew up the title. So while other drivers may gun hard for victories in the final weeks, Gordon could take a different approach. He may be content to sit back and assure himself of top-5 and top-10 outings instead of battling harder for a victory in the final five races. If he can maintain or increase his edge in the standings over the next race or two, his approach in the final two or three races could be more conservative.
Johnson and Bowyer obviously need to make a hard push for a win in the next two races or so, and drivers like Tony Stewart, who is now 198 points behind Gordon, or Carl Edwards, who is 240 points behind, will have to obviously take a more aggressive approach to winning. Those drivers will become more risky fantasy options, since they will likely be more willing to take chances and exhibit a more desperate approach on the track. This would especially be true in the case of Stewart, who is likely to let everything loose in one final stab at challenging for the championship.
Gordon has likely pushed many owners to the top of their fantasy standings so far, but he won't be desperate for a victory from here on, and that outlook could hurt his fantasy owners in tight league standings in the next five weeks. While most drivers will outwardly maintain that winning is still the most important goal, if Gordon finds himself in a situation where he is battling hard for a win, especially with a non-Chase driver, he may be less willing to engage in a fight to the finish, when a second-place or top-5 showing could easily help him maintain his lead in the standings.
Of course, if Johnson somehow manages to surge ahead in the next two or three races, Gordon will have to reclaim a sense of urgency. Bowyer is not going away, either, and was nearly able to beat Gordon for the win at Lowe's. Luck certainly was with Gordon when Ryan Newman blew a chance to win and the No. 24 car also did not run out of fuel. Now at the top, though, Gordon may start to go more into a mode of maintenance, and it's better to own a driver who feels like his championship window is closing right now.
This is especially true in salary cap-style games, in which you can take Gordon off the roster and replace him with a Johnson, Bowyer or Stewart. The championship race, however, has essentially come down to three drivers, one who sits atop them all and has consistently delivered strong finishes more than anyone. Gordon has 25 top-10 finishes and 19 top-10 showings this season. For Gordon, it's no longer about domination, but simply staying ahead of the pack overall.
If you have Gordon in a league in which you must stick with him, though, don't panic. He certainly wants to avoid bad luck, which could be truly critical at this juncture. You may not get another victory after he has reeled off two straight, but you are not going to get terrible finishes, either.
Johnson's owners are now in a prime position to make an upward move in their leagues. After spinning out, finishing 14th was an admirable feat for Johnson, and he knows he is going to have to avoid more bad luck in the next two races to stick close to his teammate. Johnson also must challenge for a win to truly contend with Gordon for the title. So his owners will see him challenge for another win in the near future.
Bowyer's owners did not draft him as an anchor of their squad in most cases, so his run to the top of the standings has been a bonus during the entire schedule. One more win would truly put Bowyer in a position to be a real serious threat to Gordon. It would also certainly boost the fantasy outlooks of many of his owners, and makes him a great choice for owners in challenge-style leagues for the next few races.
Then there are the drivers who remain in the Chase field, but are clearly out of the running for the championship. For guys like Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr., the focus will now be on salvaging more respectable finishes among the final 12. Such drivers are good selections because they are likely to score more than one good finish over the final five races. A win for these type of drivers will also build some momentum toward the 2008 season.
There are only a few weeks left for the "spoilers" to do their thing as well. Newman has certainly deserved better luck this year and will be primed to charge hard for another win after flaming out at Charlotte. Dale Earnhardt Jr. still has not scored his final victory under the DEI banner, and he has none in 2007. You also can't count out Casey Mears or Bobby Labonte. The non-Chase drivers round out your roster and will also be a key to your own championship charge.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.