- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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The seemingly endless string of near misses in 2007 finally came to an end for Jeff Gordon on Saturday night. Gordon won at Phoenix and became the first driver to turn the trick from the pole. It would now seem that Gordon faces a challenge to sustain the great momentum he built for several races as he tried to nail down his first win of the season. Now that he has a victory, what can he do for an encore?
How about continuing a successful drive toward a fifth championship? There's no reason to believe that Gordon will start to slip any time soon, and his fantasy owners can be confident his great run of early success can be sustained throughout the season. When some drivers perform as consistently well as Gordon has so far this year, worry starts to creep into the minds of some fantasy players. They wonder, how can he possibly keep doing this well? He has to start facing some challenges or inconsistency soon, right?
Wrong. There's no reason to think negatively when a driver is performing so well, especially when you are talking about a driver of Gordon's caliber. In the weeks ahead, even if your league has limited starts per driver or uses a salary cap, you have to keep Gordon locked in. Ride the run of success as long as possible while you try to build a considerable lead in your standings. Once you are in a comfortable spot, you can reserve Gordon if you have to in leagues that have limited-start rules.
In salary cap style leagues, you might as well keep Gordon in your lineup for the rest of the season. Any disappointing outings will come only occasionally, and likely won't happen often enough to have a major negative impact on your overall place in the standings. Don't expect any falloff from Gordon until you actually see it happen, and even then, it's highly unlikely he's going to have a run of several consecutive disappointing performances. Gordon won't be perfect the rest of the year, but it's hard to envision him suffering through a cold streak at any point soon.
Inconsistency had plagued Gordon in recent seasons, but now Gordon seems to have really put it all together again. He's been in position to win on all types of tracks and has quickly adapted to the Car of Tomorrow. Gordon has appeared to take his recent series of near-miss finishes as a personal challenge, which could ultimately push him to his first championship since 2001.
While Gordon has clearly established himself as an active legend in NASCAR, he has not won a championship in six years, and he is going to take his fantasy owners on a great ride as he tries to end the "drought." Gordon appears to be determined to prove he is still a champion and will sustain his early success for much longer.
Gordon might have benefited from some luck on pit road late in the race at Phoenix, but he certainly deserved some good fortune after some moments of frustration earlier in the schedule, and you certainly have to give credit to his crew for helping him succeed in a tight situation. Finally, everything clicked for Gordon at Phoenix, and there has been little that he has done wrong so far this year. Even if victories won't always be easy to come by, the top-five finishes will keep rolling in and Gordon will certainly anchor many fantasy championship squads.
After his thrilling win at Texas, Jeff Burton was expected to be a top contender again at Phoenix. He had to overcome starting in 31st, which Burton eventually did, but he never challenged the top of the field. It was Burton's most uninspiring showing overall in a great season so far. While he did manage to finish in 13th place, which is still very respectable, Burton's fantasy owners have become accustomed to better finishes so far this season. They shouldn't lose faith based on one race. Expect Burton to rebound quickly and push for a top spot at Talladega. He's going to stay close to Gordon all year long in the standings.
Tony Stewart was reportedly so ticked off about his second-place finish at Phoenix that he didn't even speak to the media after Saturday's race. Much like Gordon, Stewart has also dealt with some notable early-season frustration. Stewart has regularly had one of the best cars on the track so far, yet he has become frustrated with near misses and some bad luck. Stewart led for 132 laps and seemed primed to earn his first win of 2007, but couldn't stave off a relentless Gordon. Another week of falling short can only propel Stewart to greater heights in the near future, so it's a great time to get him on your roster in a challenge-style game. Owners who use him regularly should simply enjoy the next few races as Stewart tries to secure that elusive first victory of '07.
Around the Track
• Johnny Sauter came through with one of the most impressive finishes of the day, as he started in 42nd and finished in ninth. Sauter is building some positive momentum, and he's a bargain driver in most formats right now. While you can't expect consistency from him yet, Sauter is certainly worth a gamble to balance out your lineup as a value pick.
• Jeff Green has quickly become well-acquainted with the Car of Tomorrow. Green finished sixth at Phoenix, his second finish in that spot in three COT races. Green obviously becomes one of the best value selections for any upcoming COT races.
• Jamie McMurray has performed better than expected so far this season, and appeared to be en route to one of his best finishes of '07 after taking the outside pole at Phoenix and running near the top of the field early in the race. Debris nearly created some serious engine problems for McMurray, and ultimately caused him to pit under green. McMurray finished 23rd, but he'll bounce back nicely if he can simply avoid bad luck in the near future.
• If not for a pit road penalty, Denny Hamlin could have outlasted Gordon for a win. Hamlin may have had the best car on the track Saturday night, and he led for 72 laps early. He was banished to 31st place after the penalty, yet he stormed back to finish in third place. Hamlin has avoided the sophomore jinx nicely so far this year and more opportunities to win should be ahead soon.
• In his first COT race of the season, Mark Martin finished in 12th place. Martin didn't contend for a top spot at all, but his performance was certainly not disappointing and he remains a fine choice, especially in challenge-style games.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports. You can contact Scott here.