- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Sunday's Chase for the Cup opener at New Hampshire wasn't exciting in terms of pure racing. For most of the day, race fans watched the rest of the field follow and try to snatch the precious few laps in front from Clint Bowyer, who put on the brightest showing of his young career. Bowyer dominated throughout as he finally earned a seemingly long-awaited first Nextel Cup victory.
No, the race wasn't a thriller, but the result sure was for Bowyer and his fantasy owners. Bowyer's fantasy faithful finally saw their driver reach his potential, and his victory could begin a hot streak that could translate into many strong finishes during the remainder of the Chase schedule. Victories often lead to positive momentum, and now that Bowyer finally has shed the specter of being the only Chase driver without a win, he can proceed with a lot more confidence and maybe even a little less pressure in the weeks ahead.
A few days before the race, Bowyer was eerily prophetic about his chances to start well in the Chase, even though he seemed like the odd man out without a win. "Anything can happen," he said at Nextel Cup media day in New York City. "We could easily come out of New Hampshire in fifth or sixth place if we have a good run." Bowyer was right, and did even better than he predicted. He now sits at fourth in the point standings, and his fantasy owners certainly got a major boost from him as the most important stretch of the season began.
Martin Truex Jr. also noted that the first career win can also lead a run of success. Speaking at media day, he added that there was a "sense of relief" after he scored his first Nextel Cup victory at Dover earlier this season. Truex finished in the top three in three of the four races that followed his Dover triumph. So Bowyer should be able to ride the wave of his success from Sunday for at least a few more races.
Bowyer may not score another victory in the Chase, but he certainly can continue to run as a top contender every week. He has only three top-5 finishes this season, but he has been able to manage 13 top-10 showings, a major reason why he earned a spot in the Chase field. Recent inconsistency has been the prime issue for Bowyer, though. He had only one top-10 finish in the five races prior to Loudon.
Many drivers, however, note that a "new season" starts when the Chase begins. In New York, Jeff Burton said all the past races "don't matter" when the Chase begins. That theory certainly applied to Bowyer on Sunday. He looked like a completely different driver than he did during the first 26 races. He held off charges from Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch and consistently kept Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart behind him. Bowyer looked as if he truly belonged in the Chase for the first time. Thankfully for his owners, he is now displaying his best form as the final nine races of the season beckon in the weeks ahead.
The Quiet Champion
Many of the drivers at media day last week spoke of being consistent in the final 10 races of the season, as opposed to dominating the field. Gordon preached consistency and noted his team had been gearing up all season for the Chase. Matt Kenseth admitted that if Gordon got off to a good start in the Chase, he would be very difficult to catch because he runs so well on all types of tracks. At Loudon, Gordon was not dominant and never truly challenged Bowyer for the lead, but he stayed near the top of the field throughout the race, and ultimately came in second without leading a single lap. Gordon is now tied for the top spot in the standings and his owners can certainly lean on him for a strong run to their own league championships. Gordon is locked in and focused on regularly strong finishes as the Chase moves ahead, and his recent run of bad luck now appears to be officially behind him. He has finished in the top five in the past two races and now has 16 top-5 finishes in 2007.
Kurt Busch re-emerged as a real championship contender when he rode a strong summer run into the Chase field. Fantasy leaguers also regained a lot of faith in Busch and had to be feeling good about his chances entering Loudon. Busch ran well early and was nipping at Bowyer's lead during the early stages of the race. Car troubles, however, doomed Busch and he finished in 25th, much to the disappointment of his fantasy owners, who had been counting on him to begin the Chase with a positive showing. Busch fell to 12th in the standings, 102 points behind leaders Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. You can expect Busch to rebound quickly as he tries to stay in contention. Look for strong runs from him over the next two to three races.
Around the Track
• Many Chase participants mentioned Ryan Newman as a possible spoiler in New York last week. Kurt Busch said he expected him to win one of the final races. Newman ran as well as any Chase driver at Loudon and finished ninth. Newman's fantasy owners can look for more strong runs from him in the weeks ahead.
• Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch said they didn't expect to see Hendrick dominance again during the Chase when asked about the team's great early-season success at media day. All four Hendrick cars, though, finished in the top 10 at Loudon. Casey Mears finished eighth. "He's been getting more comfortable with the setups every week," Jeff Gordon said.
• J.J. Yeley had some smoke coming out of his car early at New Hampshire, but never had any major issues with his car. He finished in 10th for the second consecutive week. He has finished 13th or better in three of the past four races and is a good non-Chase bargain driver for the final nine races.
• Matt Kenseth started in 30th, but continually picked his way through the field and ended up in seventh. Kenseth now has 17 top-10 finishes in 2007. While he may not be a true championship contender, Kenseth will consistently deliver top-10 showings during the final nine races.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
15dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information