- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Saturday's All-Star Challenge did not count in the standings, but the event did provide some interesting results to consider. Most notably, we didn't see a Hendrick Motorsports driver in Victory Lane, even though Jimmie Johnson made a late push to keep the Hendrick stranglehold on all things related to the Nextel Cup Series.
Kevin Harvick, who has been delivering up-and-down results to fantasy owners this season so far, held off Johnson and made us wonder if he can shake off the inconsistency and rebound in the weeks ahead. Outside of Denny Hamlin, there have been no real serious threats to the Hendrick boys at the top of the standings recently, and it seemed almost like a shock that a non-Hendrick driver won the Challenge. Until he blew a tire, it seemed like Jeff Gordon might make a strong push for another win, even though he clearly didn't have the best car on the track.
During the regular season, Harvick has not quite performed up to expectations overall, with just two top-five finishes, and he has not won since his late charge to victory at the Daytona 500. Yet in recent weeks, he had started to deliver better showings before his 17th-place finish at Darlington. At Phoenix, Richmond and Talladega, Harvick came through with three top-10 finishes. Harvick had not finished in the top 20 in four of the five races prior to Phoenix, as he had also dealt with some bad luck. Even though he couldn't manage a top-15 finish at Darlington, his win at the Challenge is a certain sign that his recent mini-slump and erratic finishes are now behind him.
Harvick has four top-10 finishes in the past five races if you include Saturday's challenge. He became only the fourth driver to win the Daytona 500 and the Challenge in the same season, and gave Richard Childress Racing its first win in the event since 1993. Those are both very notable accomplishments that will spur Harvick to better overall finishes in the upcoming weeks. If you don't own one of the top Hendrick drivers, your fantasy season isn't over. Saturday's win by Harvick proved that some other top drivers will challenge Johnson and Gordon in the near future.
Kenseth loses shot at win
If not for a late penalty on pit road, Matt Kenseth could have outlasted Harvick to win the All-Star Challenge. Kenseth was pushed to the back of the field for the final segment after he won the first and third segments and he eventually finished seventh. He definitely had one of the top cars on the track, but speeding on pit road after the third segment killed his chances of winning. Kenseth's fantasy owners, however, should be encouraged by his strong performance in the first three segments. Kenseth has not made a serious push for a win recently, but he has come through with three top-10 finishes if you include Saturday's race. Kenseth is looking good overall, with five top-10s in his past six points races. He's quietly staying in contention every week, and if he comes through with a surge of even better finishes soon, his fantasy owners are going to benefit in a major way. It's very possible we haven't seen the best of Kenseth yet this year, and he could be primed for a very strong run in the near future.
Gordon's luck runs out
Everything seemingly had been going right for Gordon all season long, and when Kenseth's penalty pushed him out of the lead to begin the fourth segment, it appeared Gordon was poised for yet another victory. He began the fourth segment at the top of the field, and it certainly wouldn't have been surprising to see him keep the lead. Gordon, however, quickly lost the lead because of a left rear tire problem and he started dropping back in the field. He managed an 11th-place finish after getting new tires. Gordon's owners obviously should be thankful his sudden encounter with bad luck came in a race that did not count in the points standings. Look for him to bounce back quickly this upcoming weekend and don't expect anything but another strong run as Gordon instantly erases any lingering worries that his hot streak could be over.
Take note of Truex
Martin Truex Jr. has performed better this season than his overall results indicate, and he certainly ran into some bad luck early in the schedule. Yet things seem to be turning around for Truex, and he served notice to fantasy owners on Saturday with a late run to overtake Carl Edwards and win the Nextel Open. Edwards had led most of the race, but Truex passed him with three laps to go and earned the right to participate in the All-Star Challenge. He was able to stave off Johnny Sauter, who finished second and earned the other available spot in the Challenge. Entering Saturday's races, Truex had four top-20 finishes in his past five races, with three in the top 15 during that span. He likely won't earn a win any time soon, but Truex is certainly looking like one of the best bargain drivers on the Nextel Cup circuit recently.
Around the track
• After finishing second in the Nextel Open, Sauter finished sixth in the All-Star Challenge. If he can build any momentum from the showing, Sauter certainly will be a good bargain choice in salary cap-style games, so continue to monitor his progress.
• Jeff Burton was never a real serious contender for the win, but he did manage to finish fourth in the Challenge. It was another strong showing for Burton, who has started to run well again after a brief falloff recently.
• Mark Martin came through with another impressive showing, finishing in third place. While Martin has yet to deliver a top-10 finish in a Car of Tomorrow race, he has continued to perform very well overall, and he's a must-start driver in all formats when he is in the race lineup.
• Did a pair of Toyotas really belong in an All-Star race? Dale Jarrett and Brian Vickers finished 12th and 13th. Jarrett has been missing races recently, failing to qualify on speed, and he and Michael Waltrip seem to be free to pursue commercial endorsements on a full-time basis nowadays. Vickers is the best Toyota driver so far this year, but he is certainly not reliable for fantasy purposes.
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.