Brickyard Wrapup: Gordon still on Stewart's heels
All the current hype and focus surrounds Tony Stewart because he has won the past two races. Yet we just can't assume Stewart's owners are getting a clear ride to the top of their fantasy leagues this season. Although he's out of the spotlight for now, you can't forget about Jeff Gordon, who is looking impressive simply by avoiding the bad luck that has plagued his Hendrick Motorsports teammates recently.
Even when Gordon isn't ending up in Victory Lane -- he has not won in the past six races -- he is coming through with strong performances. The Nextel Cup season is a long stretch of ups and downs, as Stewart's owners can attest. Yet no one has navigated the schedule better than Gordon so far. He has been the most consistent driver in fantasy racing this year, with an incredible 18 top-10 finishes in 20 races, and his reliability at a high level still makes his owners the favorite to win any fantasy league. In salary cap-style leagues, having Gordon on your roster provides you with a great sense of security.
Stewart is a noted second-half force who has exploded back into prominence recently. The Hendrick dominance of the season's first half seems like an old story now. More wins are certainly ahead for Gordon this season, and although Stewart might be the story of the moment, Gordon will be the man to take more of his owners to fantasy titles when it's all over in 2007.
Until it's proved otherwise for a longer stretch, Stewart's owners can't be confident their driver will match Gordon's consistency in the weeks ahead. Gordon has 13 top-5 finishes in 2007; Stewart has six. Gordon, with four wins, still has twice as many as Stewart. Yes, I have heard all the hubbub about how Stewart is better in the second half of the schedule and how the Indianapolis winner often seems destined for the title. Yet every week, I see Gordon running up near the front of the pack, and I know he's going to end up on top.
No driver has exemplified Hendrick Motorsports' fall from earlier grace better than Jimmie Johnson, who has seemed to fall under the black cloud that followed Stewart in the first half of the schedule. Johnson suffered through another disappointing ending when he blew a tire on Lap 62 and slammed into the wall, starting a fire. He had been attempting to recover after a crash on Lap 45 also threatened to ruin his day. Johnson finished 39th, his second consecutive finish out of the top 35. He now has only two top-10 finishes in his past nine races. Still, he is too good a driver not to turn things around soon, so his owners should maintain faith in him.
Casey Mears also was involved in a wreck at Indianapolis, and he finished 35th. Mears, who had started to show some real signs of finally building on his great promise several weeks ago, has started to struggle again. He has only one top-10 finish in his past five races. He's far less assured than Johnson of turning things around quickly, but Mears certainly has improved in 2007, and this latest slump shouldn't last too long.
Don't count me among those thrilled by Juan Pablo Montoya's second-place finish at Indianapolis. Sure, it was his best showing so far on an oval, but as a former open-wheel star, it's not as though Montoya wasn't familiar with the track. Montoya certainly is improving, but I'm not going to expect consistency yet. Montoya still has only three top-5 finishes and four top-10s in 2007. He has an average finish of 21.6, and I wouldn't consider him a regular fantasy starter yet.
• Kevin Harvick has five top-10 finishes in the past six races. Harvick wasn't able to hold off Stewart at Indy, but he has to be considered a strong starter again now that he has put his earlier bouts of inconsistency behind him.
• A wreck caused Ryan Newman to finish in 42nd, his worst showing of 2007. Newman is still only 59 points out of the Chase field, though, and should rebound well at Pocono. He finished second there in June.
• Jeff Burton quietly has been performing very well recently. He has four top-10 finishes in his past five races.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
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