- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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It simply doesn't seem like you can win in your fantasy league right now if you don't have one of the two Hendrick superstars on your squad. Owning Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson is the apparent ticket to a fantasy championship in 2007. The Hendrick cars are winning when they aren't even supposed to.
At least that's how it looks in the standings today. If you have Denny Hamlin on your roster, though, there's still a lot of hope left for the 2007 season.
Gordon clearly didn't have the best car at Darlington, and for a long time, it seemed like Hamlin or Ryan Newman was going to end the Hendrick lock on the Car of Tomorrow races. Yet somehow, with his car spewing steam for more than 20 laps, Gordon outlasted Hamlin, who probably should have won on Sunday. Gordon lucked out, and Hamlin's fantasy owners should be quite confident going forward despite the late frustration on Sunday.
If not for a bad pit stop with 58 laps remaining, Hamlin would have been impossible to beat. Hamlin lost 14 spots, dropping to 16th place, and had to work his way back to the top of the field. Hamlin led for a career-high 179 laps, only to finish in second place. There was some controversy that no caution flag came out with two laps to go as well. With obvious debris on the track, there was no yellow flag, which would have helped Hamlin in terms of catching up to Gordon, while increasing the risk that the No. 24's engine wouldn't have been able to survive the end of the race.
So while at first glance it seems the Hendrick dominance continued, there were true signs of hope for owners of other highly notable drivers. Sunday showed that there are handful of top-notch drivers who can still contend or stay near the top of the standings, especially Hamlin. He seems overdue for a victory and has four top-three finishes in the past six races. If any driver can challenge Hendrick's supremacy right now, it's Hamlin, who has definitely tossed aside any more talk about a possible sophomore jinx.
Hamlin has led for 611 laps this season, and has led laps in six of the past seven races. Although the Hendrick cars keep ending up in first, Hamlin isn't very far behind, and the great success of the No. 24 and No. 48 cars has overshadowed the fact that the No. 11 is the biggest threat over the long haul. There's still a lot of season left, and if you have Hamlin on your fantasy roster, you should still have a lot of confidence in catching teams with one of the two Hendrick superstars. Don't give up yet.
There were other positive finishes for owners of other top drivers on Sunday. Ryan Newman placed fourth, his best showing of the season. Jeff Burton found his way back into the top 10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished in the top 10 for the second time in three races. Patience is still needed, and other drivers will certainly rise to the top of the field in the weeks ahead.
Burton's 10th-place showing was his best finish in the past four races and ended a brief slide that began when he won at Texas five races ago. Burton started 34th, yet quietly worked his way through the pack to earn the strong finish at the end. While Burton was never a true contender for a top spot, getting back in the top 10 was certainly an accomplishment for a driver who had lost his outstanding early-season form. Even if Burton doesn't contend for a win again anytime soon, it appears he is ready to deliver very respectable finishes on a regular basis again. He had finished 43rd and 34th in the two races prior to Darlington.
Not quite done
It's sad to see faded stars like Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip fail to make the field after so many good seasons in the past. That's why it's encouraging to see Sterling Marlin run better recently. Marlin's best seasons are definitely behind him, yet he is running well enough lately to get stronger consideration as a bargain driver in many formats. Marlin finished 13th at Darlington, his best showing of the season so far. Marlin has now finished in the top 16 in two of the past three races, and now appears capable of coming through with regular finishes in or close to the top 20, which is what you expect from the final driver on your roster. Anything in the top 15 is often a nice bonus, and obviously not out of reach for Marlin.
No glory for Greg
If there was one track at which we thought we would see a Greg Biffle bounce-back performance, it was supposed to be Darlington, where he often dominates. Biffle qualified second, a very encouraging initial sign. He then started to drop back in the field rather early in the race, though, and was never a serious contender again. Biffle's15th-place finish was certainly not embarrassing, but it can be considered disappointing. He has not finished in the top 10 in the past four races, though, and has only one top-five finish this season. It's now fully apparent that Biffle is on his way to another disappointing season. If you didn't want to believe it before Sunday, the fact that he couldn't contend at Darlington should convince you he is not going to rebound anytime soon.
• Matt Kenseth hasn't been outstanding, but he has quietly been coming through with quality finishes. A strong surge soon could easily help many of his owners leap back into contention for a top spot in their leagues. Kenseth finished seventh at Darlington and now has five top-10 finishes in his past six races.
• J.J. Yeley is avoiding bad luck recently and has put together a string of a few respectable finishes. Yeley finished 18th at Darlington and he has now placed in the top 21 in all of the past four races. Yeley is once again looking like one of the better bargain drivers in many fantasy formats, especially challenge-style games.
• Mark Martin came through with his best outing in a COT race so far. Not in terms of finish, but pure performance. Martin has yet to come through with a top-10 finish in a COT race, but he started 37th at Darlington and finished 14th. Martin definitely is more comfortable in the standard ride, but he is looking better in the COT with every race.
• Martin Truex Jr. won't push for a win anytime soon, but he has been providing his owners with very respectable finishes recently. Truex finished 11th at Darlington, two races after placing 10th at Talladega. He has now finished in the top 20 in four of the past five races and in the top 15 in three of the past five.
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.