Phoenix Wrap: Look outside the top two
It seems as though next week's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will simply be an exercise in futility. It's like playing games that don't matter in baseball or football at the end of the season. It's just a formality. After Sunday's race at Phoenix, everyone including Jeff Gordon was already hailing Jimmie Johnson as the Nextel Cup champion for the second consecutive season.
In fantasy leagues, there's one more race to go, though, and thankfully, unlike in fantasy football, you won't see any of the top guys sit out. In many leagues, there is still the chance of a thrilling finish. Johnson may have carried a lot of fantasy teams into position to win their league championships with one race to go. Yet those owners will likely need surges from their other top drivers to seal up the rights to their trophy.
Johnson has won four consecutive races, and simply has to avoid a major accident or some unlikely car trouble to officially sew up the championship. He doesn't have to gun for the win next Sunday, and can drive more conservatively. Gordon can win and still not take the championship. A victory in the final race of the season would seem hollow after he lost the points lead to Johnson recently and openly admitted "it's over" after Sunday's race. Gordon doesn't need to seek a morale boost at this point of the season. He simply needs to start looking ahead to next year, several weeks after most of his competitors have done it.
So it may not be Johnson or Gordon who carries you to championship glory this week, and neither one will make the ideal pick in challenge-style or salary cap games. The window is now open for someone else to step into Victory Lane, someone who needs the emotional boost more than Gordon or more decoration than Johnson. The Chase for the Cup has been mostly devoid of real chances for spoilers to step up. A victory or very strong run in the season finale could make a lot of other drivers look good.
The most obvious choice would be Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will be participating in his final race under the DEI banner. We have waited too long this year for that win, though, and it seems as if it simply isn't going to happen. Earnhardt is now in line to go without a win for the first time since 1999, and he suffered his ninth DNF at Phoenix, and has two in his past three races. Earnhardt has battled bad luck all season long, and it may visit him one more time in the season finale. Earnhardt would be a nice story, but does not seem realistic.
A better choice might be Kyle Busch, who will be racing for the final time as part of Hendrick Motorsports. Busch finished eighth in the Nextel Cup race Sunday after winning the Busch and Truck series races earlier in the weekend. Busch has four top-10 finishes and three top-four outings in the past five races. He can leave the Hendrick stable for the last time with his head held high if he finishes off the season with a win. He certainly will push for at least a top-5 finish.
Clint Bowyer was officially eliminated from Chase competition Sunday after finishing 11th. Although he won his first race during the Chase for the Cup schedule, and everyone is saying all the right things about his "breakthrough" campaign, he is still not considered to truly be an elite driver by some fans and experts. Bowyer could make a solid statement heading into next year with a win to close out the schedule. Two victories would establish him as a force to be reckoned with in the minds of some lingering doubters.
Of the guys who were not eligible for the Chase at all, no one has made more of an impression in recent weeks than Ryan Newman, who clearly felt frustrated by missing the Chase field. Newman blew more than one chance to win during the Chase portion of the schedule, yet he kept pushing for a top spot every week with the true championship contenders. He comes into Homestead with two consecutive top-5 finishes and three in his past four races. If there's any driver who would truly relish a win to salvage something more from the 2007 season, it is Newman.
Greg Biffle also was not part of the original Chase field, but he is working hard to put the overall disappointment of not making the "elite 12" behind him and has made serious steps toward regaining his previous status as a top driver for next season. Biffle finished second at Phoenix. He had taken the pole at Atlanta two races prior to Sunday's event. Biffle won at Kansas in late September and finished second at Dover. He is also ready to make a statement that he will be back among the best next season. Look for him to make a strong push for a victory.
You also have to think about Tony Stewart, but he finished well late last year and it didn't spur him to win it all this season as many experts predicted. Stewart would likely view a win as window dressing at this point and is probably already thinking about getting off to a fast start next season instead of earning a meaningless win at Homestead. For some drivers, victory on the final Sunday may mean a lot less when the disappointment of the big picture has already set in. Stewart is an emotionally charged driver who seemingly feels insulted when he doesn't win it all. I would be surprised to see him win at Homestead, as he may rather prepare quietly for 2008 instead of answering questions about ultimate disappointment in Victory Lane.
Any Hendrick driver can challenge for a win at any time, so you also have to watch out for Casey Mears in the finale. A win by Mears would be another Hendrick statement that, while Gordon has dominated in the past and Johnson dominates in the present, Mears is the future star in the organization. It would also not be a shock to see the promising J.J. Yeley contend for his first career win. Drivers who have had frustrating Chase runs, such as Kurt Busch or Denny Hamlin, will also be looking to finish the season on a positive note.
What's highly likely is that you won't be leaning on Johnson or Gordon for that final boost to the top in the season finale at Homestead, even though they have put you in the position to stand at the top of the fantasy mountain. That final nudge is going to come from an unexpected source.Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.