- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Although this weekend's race in Atlanta certainly was not plagued by controversy the way the previous one at Las Vegas was, there were still a lot of interesting story lines. Most notable, of course, was the dominance of Jimmie Johnson for the second consecutive week. Last year's Nextel Cup champion wrested what seemed like a sure victory away from Tony Stewart.
Johnson was able to overtake Stewart late in the race for the win, and though Stewart often has had a terrific car, he still has yet to win a race. But Stewart still is running well enough to anchor many fantasy championship squads, and even if Johnson stays very hot, the No. 20 car should end up in Victory Lane very soon. Stewart seems overdue for his first win of 2007. Right now, there are three drivers who clearly are the keys to keeping your team at the top of your standings.
Johnson, Stewart and Jeff Gordon are definitely the three elite drivers in fantasy racing at this time. Although Johnson's success is obvious, the other two have been slightly less successful in terms of wins and recent momentum. Yet Gordon and Stewart are nearly unmatched on a weekly basis when it comes to having a shot at contending for a win. They have had two of the best cars on the track each week, even if it hasn't quite showed up in the final results.
With Mark Martin planning to sit out next week's race at Bristol, Gordon is the "unofficial" leader in the point standings. Gordon certainly deserved better than the 12th-place finish he ended up with Sunday. That's not a bad showing for most drivers, but Gordon could have come away with the win had he not dealt with issues on pit road. Gordon led for 30 laps and early in the race seemed destined for his first win of the year.
Gordon might not have grabbed the headlines in the same manner as his teammate Johnson did the past two races, but he's one of the top must-start drivers in fantasy. He's running well on all types of tracks right now and should be primed to finally end up in Victory Lane at a short track this week. Stewart will continue to push hard for a win out of what could be pure frustration at the near miss at Atlanta.
Coupled with a Daytona crash and a pit road infraction at Fontana, Stewart already has been denied three possible shots at wins so far this season. That should only make him drive with an increased sense of urgency. And that means everyone else in the field should watch out for him. Johnson, Stewart and Gordon seem destined to battle hard for the top spot in the standings all year long. Your fantasy team should be hitched on for the ride, with everything else falling into place around them, when you're building your lineup.
The Montoya buzz
Johnson ruled the track, but you might have thought Juan Pablo Montoya ended up in Victory Lane considering all the postrace talk that surrounded NASCAR's most-hyped rookie. Montoya had been looking like a mediocre newcomer in the first three races of the season, but then came through with his best finish of the young season at Atlanta.
Montoya finished fifth, and though he never challenged for the lead, he had one of the best cars on the track Sunday and consistently remained near the top of the field. Although there is much talk that Montoya has started to adapt quickly to the Nextel Cup circuit, it should take more than just one race to convince savvy fantasy players he is ready to put together a string of quality showings. It's certainly not a bad move to hold off using Montoya on the short track next week while remaining skeptical about how consistent he can be just yet. Don't be fully sold on Montoya's success yet.
Unheralded fantasy hero
Johnson and Montoya were the stars of the day, but overlooked Jeff Burton continued to be ultrareliable for fantasy purposes. Burton is the best choice to put next to a Johnson, Stewart or Gordon in your lineup right now. Although he rarely pushes for a top spot, Burton seems locked into a top-10 spot every week. He delivered his third top-5 finish in four races Sunday and had a highly impressive day when you consider he started in 32nd. Burton quickly zipped through the field and remained just outside the very top spots for much of the day.
Kasey Kahne desperately needed a good finish to remain in the top 35 in owner's points after four races. Instead, he suffered more bad luck. Kahne was involved in a crash that brought out the fourth caution flag of the day and ultimately led to his 39th-place finish. After opening the season with a seventh-place showing at Daytona, Kahne has endured three straight races filled with car problems or mishaps. He sits in 36th and is obviously a driver to avoid until his luck gets better. But he should still recover from his terrible start sometime soon.
Around the track
• Clint Bowyer finished in sixth place, his second sixth-place showing in three races. Bowyer is a great value driver who seems ready to make a strong push for a spot in the Chase for the Cup.
• Martin Truex Jr. finally steered clear of bad luck and came through with a strong finish, placing eighth. Truex has endured a rough start but will rise soon in the standings if he continues to avoid trouble.
• Jamie McMurray rather quietly delivered a quality showing. He started in 37th but managed a 15th-place finish. McMurray has earned two consecutive top-15 finishes and could be a good value in some leagues right now.
• It's officially time to stop the talk of Casey Mears having a breakthrough season and take him out of your lineup. Mears provided his fantasy owners with another mediocre showing Sunday, finishing 28th.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports. You can contact Scott here.
9dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information