- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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The Nextel Cup Series continues to be a theater of the unexpected. While it certainly was no surprise that Jeff Gordon won his fourth race of the season on Sunday, it certainly happened in less-than-customary fashion. After two consecutive races with first-time winners, we saw our first weather-shortened race winner of the season. Gordon's fantasy owners should certainly thank Mother Nature and crew chief Steve Letarte for their good luck.
Gordon was able to barely hold on for the win over a hard-charging Ryan Newman before the final caution flag. If the race had continued, it would have been highly unlikely that Gordon would have been able to nail down the win. Gordon certainly didn't have the best car on the track Sunday, as his brake problems were well-noted and the risky pit strategy would have worked against him during a longer race. Sometimes, you get lucky in fantasy sports, and Gordon's owners should certainly feel fortunate after Pocono.
Of course, there is also the angle that the breaks will certainly go in a driver's favor during a championship run, and that certainly has been true for Gordon so far this season. He has certainly earned his wide lead in the standings, for the most part. Gordon has been willing to take risks, such as bearing down to go for the win at Darlington while steam spewed from his engine. No matter how you look at the overall results so far, Gordon has parlayed more than one approach into being the best this year. He has either been dominant, a gambler, just plain lucky or simply very smart.
Those are the qualities you definitely want from the anchor of your fantasy team, and such approaches are going to make Gordon's owners hard to beat in fantasy leagues the remainder of the season. Yet while Gordon came through with the victory, Newman's performance was proof that those who don't have Gordon on their rosters still have hope for earning a top spot in their leagues. If the race had lasted longer, Newman would have made a strong push for his first victory since 2005.
Of course, he likely would been faced with a fierce challenge from Martin Truex Jr., who certainly was coming on quickly while Gordon and Newman were battling each other toward the "official" finish. Truex had one of the best cars on the track Sunday and definitely would have made a charge for his second consecutive win if the race had lasted longer. Of course, Denny Hamlin also would have been a contender to earn his third consecutive Pocono triumph.
Still, Newman's owners should be very happy with another fine finish after bad luck seemed to plague his season early on. He now has finished in the top-5 in three of the past four races and has placed in the top 10 in five of his past six outings. Truex has clearly announced his arrival as a real contender with two straight top-5 finishes and five top-10s overall this year. He has progressively improved this season and now is becoming a must-start driver for many owners. Hamlin also seems well overdue for his first win of the 2007 season.
While Gordon seems to be showered with good luck, his most notable teammate, Jimmie Johnson, suddenly can't avoid bad luck. For the second consecutive week, tire problems ruined Johnson's finish, and in much worse fashion than at Dover, where he still managed to place 15th. Johnson ended up with his worst finish of the year at Pocono, as he came in 42nd after his left front tire gave out on the 90th lap. Johnson's car went to the garage and he ultimately fell to fourth place in the Nextel Cup standings. It was Johnson's worst showing since a crash led to a 39th-place finish at Daytona in the season opener. Johnson followed that showing with a third-place finish and his first two wins of the 2007 season, so his owners should look forward to a big run of rebound performances in the weeks ahead.
Casey at the top
Gordon wasn't the only Hendrick driver to take a risk with pit strategy and have it pay off well. Like Gordon, Casey Mears came into the pits on lap 82 and stayed out until the end, as he also elected to go against the norm and take the gamble. The approach worked well for Mears, who finished in fourth place. Mears now has two top-5 finishes in the past three races and three consecutive top-15 finishes. After dealing with a lot of bad luck earlier this season, it all seems to be finally coming together for Mears. His switch to Hendrick Motorsports is really starting to pay off, and his owners should keep him locked into their lineups during this very positive run that could be quite pivotal in Mears' career.
Hamlin was noticeably frustrated after the race was called early, as he obviously thought he could have netted his first win of the year if the race had not been cut short. Hamlin's pit strategies may have ultimately played a part in his failure to win and can certainly be questioned, especially when he decided to take four tires when other drivers were choosing only to load up on fuel. Hamlin had to make his way back into the top of the field more than once after pitting, and at one point had to come from the 21st position to regain the lead. Hamlin had to work very hard to earn a sixth-place finish on a day when he definitely had a car capable of winning. He now has five consecutive top-10 finishes, and it won't be much longer before he dominates most of a race and ends his frustration.
Around the track
• Tony Stewart has not made a serious push for a win in the past few weeks, but it looks like he is building towards something big, whether it be a strong string of outings or his first win of the year. Stewart finished fifth at Pocono and now has four top-10 finishes in the past five races.
• The controversy of the rain-shortened finish overshadowed an outstanding performance by Mark Martin. He was the most impressive mover of the day, finishing seventh after starting in 34th. Martin may say he isn't thinking about winning a title, but he can certainly help your fantasy team win one every time he races this year.
• A finish of 25th was quite impressive when you consider Chad McCumbee was making his Nextel Cup debut in place of Kyle Petty, who was working the broadcast booth. McCumbee, however, won't get a chance to build on his showing. John Andretti will run four of the next five races in Petty's place and could be a good low-end bargain in some formats.
• Jamie McMurray, who started the year with a positive outlook, has started to fall off recently. He has failed to finish in the top-20 in the past two races and has not placed in the top-15 in the past five races and six of the past seven overall. McMurray is clearly in a mini-slump, and it's a good time to reserve him if you can do so.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
3dK. Lee Davis