- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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As recently as late July, Jimmie Johnson's fantasy owners were starting to lose confidence that he could lead them to a fantasy championship again. Johnson was unreliable in June and July after a terrific start to the season. The spotlight shined on Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch during the summer as Johnson struggled to run consistently near the top of the field every week.
Johnson has turned things around at the most important time of the season for both himself and fantasy players. He finally notched his fifth win of the season in a "home game" at California, and now leads all drivers in victories with only one event remaining before the Chase starts. Not only is Johnson assured of at least a tie for the top spot in the Chase field, he has rediscovered his best form with only 11 races remaining on the schedule, much to the relief of those who lean on him heavily in fantasy leagues.
Johnson had finished 21st at Bristol the previous week, but before that disappointing outing, it appeared he was on his way to pushing for another victory and was starting to run well again. In the three races prior to Bristol, Johnson had managed three top-5s and two consecutive third-place performances. The recent return of crew chief Chad Knaus can only help Johnson down the stretch and during the Chase for the Cup.
Johnson's last win had come in the 10th race of the season at Richmond, the site of the next event. He now has 13 top-5 finishes and 15 top-10 showings. Last year, Johnson finished well in his drive to the championship, placing in the top 10 in seven of the final 10 races. In 2005, he finished seventh or better in five of the final seven races. So he is certainly capable of closing the year with a string of solid finishes. While we definitely haven't seen the last dominant performances from Gordon and Stewart, and any owner of Kurt Busch has to be considered a serious title contender, Johnson's owners can now feel confident that they have a legitimate shot of winning their league championship this year.
Early this season, Johnson won three of four races, but he has yet to regain such superb form over an extended stretch. Johnson's performance at Richmond this week could go a long way toward telling us if he can sustain the great momentum he gained at Fontana. Johnson had only one top-10 showing at the site before he won there earlier this season. I'm betting on another strong run from Johnson at Richmond as he tries to secure his place at the top of the Chase field.
Second Was Best?
Johnson was able to hold off Carl Edwards late in the race, although Edwards appeared to have one of the best cars on the track Sunday night. If not for an early pit road collision with Juan Pablo Montoya, Edwards may have come through with his second consecutive victory. Edwards and his pit crew still did an admirable job, as he was able to finish in second despite the mishap. Edwards has now finished eighth or better in the past four races and six of the past eight Nextel Cup events. You can look for a tight scramble to fantasy championships in many leagues, as owners of Edwards will also be in contention with those who anchor their teams with drivers such as Gordon and Stewart.
Another Disappointing Day
The black cloud continues to follow Jeff Gordon. After dominating earlier in the season and easily stacking up top-10 finishes when he wasn't winning races, Gordon's long run of good luck appears to have run out, and even though he still leads the points standings, he is in danger of not being at the top of the field when the Chase begins. Gordon was involved in another wreck on Sunday night, and finished 22nd. He has failed to finish better than 19th in the past three races since he blew an apparent victory at Watkins Glen. Gordon had finished in the top 10 in 20 of the first 22 races prior to this cold stretch. He has rarely looked as though he could dominate in recent weeks, although without any mishaps, he has always run like a top-10 performer. Even if Gordon doesn't bounce back for a win soon, he's destined to reclaim his usual spot in the top 10 in the near future.
The "Other" Busch
While Kurt Busch has re-emerged this season as a true championship contender, we can't overlook his brother. Kyle Busch led for 97 laps at Fontana and appeared to have one of the best cars on the track, especially in terms of handling. Kyle has now finished in the top 10 in three of the past four races. His only win of the 2007 season came in the fifth race of the year at Bristol. He's running very well recently, and you will see the "other" Busch make a very strong push for another victory in the near future.
Around the Track
The insertion of Doug Randolph as Bobby Labonte's new crew chief has produced fine results. Since Randolph took over, Labonte has managed finishes of ninth, eighth and 11th. He is one of the top bargain drivers for salary cap-style leagues while he is running well.
Although he spent too much time in the pits to have a chance to challenge for the win, Kasey Kahne delivered his second consecutive strong showing, finishing 10th at Fontana. Kahne is looking good again as he starts to build toward the 2008 season.
Brian Vickers scored his second consecutive eighth-place finish at California. Vickers has easily been the best of the Toyota drivers this season, and he's another quality value selection right now.
Matt Kenseth has been good, but not great in recent weeks. He has only one top-five showing in the past six races. In salary cap-style leagues, you're better off anchoring your roster with another top driver, at least until Kenseth starts showing he can be a stronger contender for victories.
Tony Stewart has one top-5 in the past three races. He finished 13th at Fontana. Look for Stewart to be a top contender at Richmond, where he has won three times.