- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Sunday's race at Pocono certainly wasn't the most exciting event of the Nextel Cup season, but it sure thrilled fantasy owners of Kurt Busch. He delivered what was easily the most dominant performance of the 2007 season, leading for a track-record 175 laps. To some, it seemed like a spirited battle between him and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the 12th spot in the standings, but realistically, no one was going to catch Busch on his greatest day in some time.
Busch snapped a streak of 51 races without a victory, and fully reasserted that he can be a great complementary driver to a top guy like Jeff Gordon on a championship fantasy squad. Busch had a winning car in other races this year, only to run into trouble. His wrecks at Daytona and Charlotte were among his most frustrating moments of a season that should have turned out better so far.
Busch now sits in the precious 12th spot in the standings, and for now, he can focus on holding his spot in the Chase for the Cup while putting any lingering disappointments behind him. Busch sits only seven points ahead of Junior for the final Chase spot, but if he can sustain the great momentum he built at Pocono, it's going to be very difficult to keep the 2004 champion out of Chase contention. The next few weeks will provide us with some fine battles between Busch and the other "bubble" guys, who are going to be great lineup selections over the next five races.
There are five races remaining before the Chase cutoff, and the Pocono victory is just what Busch needed to push him to some strong performances in the weeks ahead. Until Sunday, the overall numbers did not fully reflect how well Busch has run at times. He has only four top-5 finishes and six top-10s in 2007. Busch has only two victories in the past two seasons, and has an average finish of 16.9 this season. He has managed to lead for 536 laps, though. Busch had led for 95 laps in the opener at Daytona and 107 at Charlotte.
Now that Busch has clearly re-established himself as a firm Chase contender, his fantasy owners should expect more good runs in the next few races. Busch is going to have to fight hard to stave off the likes of Junior and Ryan Newman. You should definitely keep him in your lineup in most formats, and it's a good time to get him on your roster in salary cap-style games. Busch's performance on Sunday was no ordinary victory. It was a statement that he will be a strong force, especially for fantasy purposes, for the rest of the year.
Slipping to Second
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally found himself back on the pole on Sunday, but his initial place at the top of the pack seemed like a mere formality, as he spent the entire day chasing down Busch. There weren't too many notable lead changes, and Junior ultimately led for only eight laps. While he managed to fend off a late push from Denny Hamlin for third place, Junior never seemed to have a true chance of catching Busch when it counted. Still, it was an encouraging performance for him, as Hamlin and Jeff Gordon never were able to get close enough to him when it counted, in the later stages of the race. Junior fell out of the Chase field and delivered only his fourth top-5 finish of the season. Yet his overall performance was very encouraging, especially when you consider he had to deal with shock troubles and a cut tire that sent him into a spin on lap 124. Junior is going to tussle hard with Busch for that final Chase spot, so he's going to be a top starting option in the next few weeks despite his erratic showings overall this year.
Jimmie Johnson was never a serious contender for the victory. Well, no one other than Junior seemed to have any chance of catching Busch. Still, a fifth-place finish for Johnson was a very positive result considering many of his recent troubles and fall from early-season grace. Johnson had finished out of the top 35 in the previous two races, and had come through with only one top-5 finish in nine races prior to Pocono. Johnson's owners should simply be satisfied with the error-free showing, and can look forward to better times ahead. Johnson should recapture his early-season form very soon.
Around the Track
• Ryan Newman finished in seventh place, but he was at the top of the pack for much of the day, and spent a good portion of the early part of the race in second place, unsuccessfully trying to chase Busch down. Newman is now 90 points behind Busch for the final Chase spot, and even if he doesn't make the top 12, he's going to be another strong selection over the next few races. Newman is another driver who has been running better than his overall results truly indicate.
• Casey Mears has been up-and-down all year long, but he quietly came through with a good finish at Pocono. Mears finished 10th, his sixth top-10 outing of the season and second in the past three races. Mears is running well right now, and he's a good bargain driver in many formats while he is back on his game.
• Kasey Kahne ran near the top of the pack for a good portion of the day, but ultimately finished 27th. He certainly deserved a better finish, as did Juan Pablo Montoya, who ran in the top 10 early but finished 16th. Kahne and Montoya aren't going to make the Chase, but both drivers should continue to make improvements as they soon start to look toward next year.
• Jeff Gordon continues to be amazingly efficient and excellent. While he never had a real chance of catching Busch, Gordon now has 14 top-5 finishes and 19 top-10s in 21 races. Busch may have been the unquestioned star of the day, but Gordon is still the class of the field for consistency's sake and he now seems overdue for another win. It will be an interesting battle between him and road course ace Montoya next week at Watkins Glen.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.