The race to the top of your fantasy league is going to be a really tight battle. Owners of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards all have a legitimate shot at taking the league title. Owners of Jimmie Johnson, however, will certainly have an early edge during the final stretch of the season. Johnson is hot again, and when he's running at his best, Johnson is easily capable of pushing your team into the top spot in the standings and keeping it there.
Johnson won his second consecutive race at Richmond Saturday night for his sixth victory of the season, placing him atop the 12-man field as the Chase begins. He had carried many of his owners to an early lead in their standings this year when he won four of the first 10 Nextel Cup events with seven top-5 finishes. He then endured a "slump" from races 13 through 20, but has rebounded lately with five top-5 finishes in the past six races.
There will be 10 tracks included in the Chase: New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas, Talladega, Charlotte, Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. Johnson has a total of 16 wins at those tracks in his career, second to only Jeff Gordon (30) at those sites. He has 40 top-5 finishes and 65 top-10 showings at those tracks in his career. He leads all current drivers at those tracks with an average finish of 10.8, an average position of 9.9, 81.3 percent of the laps in the top 15, and 140.7 average points from '05 to '07.
The defending Nextel Cup champion appears poised for another strong finish. Last season, he finished in the top two in five of the final six races. In 2005, he finished in the top 10 in eight of the final 10 races. In 2004, Johnson won four of the final six races. So it's firmly established that he is a strong finisher. While much of the summer focus was on Gordon, Stewart and Busch, Johnson has climbed back to the top in time for the most important stretch of the Nextel Cup and fantasy schedules.
Johnson led for 104 laps at Richmond, and while much of the focus was on what Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't do, the real focus should have been on the recent resurgence of the No. 48. His owners should be very confident that they can win their league championships this season. Dominance in NASCAR is fleeting, but for now, Johnson's owners can enjoy the ride that they were on early in the 2007 season.
The Turnaround Begins?
The black cloud moved away from Jeff Gordon on Saturday night, with his first top-5 finish since the 21st race of the schedule at Pocono. Gordon led for 191 laps, and eventually finished in fourth place. At the 10 Chase tracks, Gordon not only leads the current field in victories in his career, he has also set the bar with 97 top-5 finishes and 133 top-10 showings at those sites. Gordon hasn't looked dominant since he spun out at Watkins Glen and blew an apparent victory, but he can be well on his way to regaining top form with the impressive finish at Richmond.
Don't Forget No. 20
Tony Stewart finished second at Richmond, and will be battling Johnson and Gordon to the final race for the Nextel Cup championship. After missing the Chase last season, now is the time for Stewart to really turn things up. In his career at the current Chase tracks, Stewart has 14 wins, 59 top-5 finishes and 85 top-10 showings. His average finish of 11.9 during that span is second only to Johnson, as is his 71.5 percentage of laps in the top 15 and 136.8 total points per race. In 2007, Stewart has finished sixth or better in the past eight races. He has also led for 39 laps in the past two events.
Starting to Slump?
As the Chase begins, Clint Bowyer doesn't appear to be in contending form. He finished 12th at Richmond, and now has only one top-10 finish in the past five races. Bowyer has been inconsistent overall this season and begins the Chase in 12th place. He still has yet to earn his first career victory, and doesn't appear to be a dependable starter for the final 10 races of the season, especially in salary cap-style games. Bowyer does have 12 top-10 finishes this season, but he has only two top-5 showings. In his career at the 10 Chase tracks, Bowyer has only two top-5 finishes and an average finish of 20.6.
Around the Track
• Kasey Kahne came through with his third consecutive top-10 finish at Richmond. You need bargain drivers to balance out your roster with the big names, and after he struggled most of the year until now, Kahne is a good value driver who is turning things around at the right time of the season.
• J.J. Yeley has been up-and-down during his first two Nextel Cup seasons, but there is no doubt he has the potential to be a dependable driver. He finished 10th at Richmond, his second top-10 finish of 2007. Yeley has finished in the top 15 in two of the past three races.
• Engine troubles doomed Carl Edwards to a 42nd-place finish at Richmond. Edwards snapped a string of four consecutive top-10 finishes, but he should rebound quickly to be a strong contender for the Nextel Cup championship and a firm anchor of top fantasy teams.
• Juan Pablo Montoya was involved in a wreck and finished 41st at Richmond. Montoya has not been able to muster a top-15 finish in the past six races and he's a long way from becoming anything more than a spot fantasy starter.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.