- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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After a week off from regular points racing, nothing went as expected at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Sunday. Savvy fantasy owners know that anything can happen during a long Nextel Cup season, and the unusual results of the Coca-Cola 600 were certainly proof of that. The top-5 finishers looked like a group from a "five guys you least expect to win" poll prior to the race.
The drivers who were expected to dominate again either encountered bad luck or couldn't make it to the end on fuel in the longest race of the season. That set the stage for a rather shocking win by Casey Mears, who had seemingly lost the faith of many fantasy players with a disappointing run during the first 11 races of his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Mears, who had been pinpointed as a preseason sleeper the past two seasons, was the one lone picture of clear frustration on an otherwise illustrious Hendrick Motorsports squad of drivers.
Mears, however, offered hope on Sunday that his switch to Hendrick might finally be paying off, and that many of his early results can be chalked up to a combination of bad luck and a transition period. Although it may be a while before Mears contends for a win again, his victory renews hope among his fantasy owners. Before Sunday, Mears had delivered only one top-10 finish so far this year. Now that he has finally come through with a victory, Mears could be ready to come through with more consistent top-15 finishes. Still, this win could easily be followed by another erratic run of finishes. I believe Mears' owners should wait another race or two before determining that a turnaround has begun.
I want to see more proof of success from Mears before I begin to use him as a regular starter again in leagues in which you can rotate drivers or in salary-cap style leagues. Mears was plagued by engine problems at Darlington and a crash at Talladega recently, so I do realize he can be capable of better finishes. Still, he has only three top-20 finishes so far this year, and you can't be sold on him yet. The next few races will be a pivotal stretch for Mears, who will fully indicate if he is indeed ready for a breakthrough stretch in the coming weeks. I'll still take a wait-and-see attitude with him, but with a more optimistic outlook overall.
I was less surprised by the second-place finish of J.J. Yeley, who came through with the best showing of his young career. There's no doubt Yeley is one of the better bargain drivers available in any format, as he has now finished in the top 20 in four consecutive races. Yeley certainly put on his best showing of the season, and he would have likely delivered a top-10 finish even if so many other big-name drivers hadn't fallen victim to extenuating circumstances.
Kyle Petty scored his first top-5 finish in 10 years, but fantasy players shouldn't put too much stock in that showing, as Petty should quickly return to mediocrity. Reed Sorenson finished fourth, his best-ever showing and his second top-10 of the season. Sorenson has a lot of potential as a fantasy driver, but he has been very unpredictable so far in his career, and he can't be relied on despite the fine outing. Brian Vickers finished fifth, his best showing since he won at Talladega this past October.
Hope for Toyota?
Vickers' fifth-place finish was the best outing for any Toyota so far in 2007, and although the overall results may have not reflect it fully, it was easily the most promising day for the manufacturer so far this year. Vickers actually led for 76 laps and admirably battled through a power steering problem to earn his second top-10 finish of the season. Jeremy Mayfield, who finished 25th because of car trouble, certainly deserved a better finish. Mayfield had run in the top 15 for a good portion of the day and had even led for three laps. Dale Jarrett had run in the top 10 early but ended up in 40th because of a blown engine. Dave Blaney finished 18th. Of the four, Vickers is the only driver who can really build on the momentum to become a more dependable fantasy option this year. Mayfield and Jarrett won't always qualify to race, and Blaney simply isn't reliable for fantasy purposes. He has only one top-15 finish this year.
A strange feeling
It was unusual for owners of Jeff Gordon to see his day ruined by a spectacular crash at LMS. Gordon suffered his first DNF of 2007 and finished 41st, as he endured his fifth consecutive DNF at the site. Sunday's result was a definite indication that Gordon's great run of success through the first 11 races simply had to come to an end sometime during this long season. You can bet on a quick rebound performance from Gordon at Dover, though. He has won at that track four times, with 13 top-5 finishes and 17 top-10s. In the second race at Dover last season, he took the pole and finished third.
Around the track
• Another surprise was the 10th-place finish of Jimmie Johnson, who failed to finish in the top five at LMS for the first time since 2002. Johnson's slip from the top spot can be blamed on a pit problem during the 13th caution, and it should be noted he could have scored another win at the site if not for the issues on the stop.
• After winning the All-Star Challenge, Kevin Harvick was never a major factor in the Coca-Cola 600. Harvick started 41st because of an engine change, and while he quickly made his way inside the top 30, he was part of the race's first major wreck. Ultimately Harvick could only muster only a 21st-place showing. Harvick apparently was not able to build on the momentum of his Challenge win, and his erratic finishes continue to frustrate his fantasy owners.
• It was a very disappointing day for Ryan Newman, who had taken his second pole of the season at LMS. Newman managed to lead for 10 laps and was at least poised for a respectable finish before engine issues doomed him to a 39th-place finish. Newman saw a string of three consecutive top-10 finishes come to an end, yet he has been running well recently and should bounce back at Dover.
• Newman's teammate, Kurt Busch, also deserved a better finish. Busch took the lead from Newman early and led for 107 laps, but he later smacked the wall and finished 32nd. Busch had come through with a pair of top-5 finishes before LMS, and you can write off Sunday's disappointing finish and expect him to fare much better at Dover.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports. You can contact Scott here.