Just before the Budweiser Shootout, we gathered some of the top racing experts at ESPN.com for our first fantasy racing mock draft. Our six-team draft is based on standard ESPN Fantasy Stock Car rules and should serve as a great reference guide and cheat sheet for your own drafts. I have also added in my comments for each round, along with ESPN.com Fantasy Racing writers Christopher Harris' and Mark Garrow's thoughts on how the mock draft went down. The Hendrick clan was well represented, as well as Roush and Joe Gibbs. Those teams seem to be the clear favorites heading into the season. Did some of the single-car or other smaller teams make it into any of our draft rounds?
Engel's Angles: When Jeff Gordon went off the board, Jimmie Johnson was the obvious choice. I'd rather have Gordon in the close call because of his superb consistency, but I have absolutely no reason to complain about the second pick. Those two guys will go first and second in most drafts, with anything else being a shocker and each one making a great No. 1 overall selection. Davis obviously has a lot of confidence that Tony Stewart can contend for a title again despite the change to a Toyota, but personally, I want to see how Joe Gibbs Racing fares over the full season with Toyotas before using a top-5 pick on him. Matt Kenseth remains an excellent pick despite the loss of Robbie Reiser, but I'm expecting a smooth transition to Chip Bolin as his new crew chief. I think Kyle Busch makes the Chase for sure, but again, I am skeptical about taking a Toyota driver in the first round, even though Kyle is one of the best the manufacturer has to offer this year. It's not a terrible pick at all, and I'm splitting hairs here, but I would have taken a few other guys ahead of him.
Harris' strategy: I like Kenseth's steadiness; he'd have been my pick at No. 3, simply because of tiny lingering concerns about Stewart's adaptation to Toyota. Kenseth was probably the best driver in the Chase last year, but had some terrible luck late in races and couldn't quite get over the hump. Nobody has a better ability to take a middling car and turn it into a top-10 than Kenseth.
Engel's Angles: Lipscomb can now change his team name to Team Busch. I actually like the pick of Kurt Busch better than Kyle, because the former Sprint Cup champion looked downright dominant at times last year, but he just couldn't finish well enough. I expect better overall performances this season and would not sneeze at anyone who takes him in the top 5. Besides, Kurt has told me he thinks fantasy racing is "great," and how could you not want a guy like that on your team? The Dale Earnhardt Jr. pick was bound to happen early, but I am expecting an adjustment period that will ultimately keep him out of the top eight or so, even if he makes the Chase. Sure, he will be fast and have better equipment, but the pressure will be on him to prove those factors held him back at DEI. I think he will get off to an up-and-down start as he settles in with Hendrick. I absolutely love the Clint Bowyer pick. He was very reliable last year and turned the corner to being a prominent force late in the season, when it counted the most. Davis landed what I believe is a top-5 driver in the second round. Martin Truex Jr. is poised for another good season, with more consistency, as the lead guy at DEI now. Casey Mears' potential was more obvious last year, and now in his second year in the Hendrick stable, he is poised to make sure he won't be overlooked as the "other" guy on the superstar squad.
Harris' strategy: This is right where I had Hamlin. Junior dropped to No. 8, and I was really hoping he'd fall one more slot. He didn't, so I took the chalk with Hamlin. Nothing to be ashamed of there. He's really steady, too. The only thing that pushes him down a little (as it does with Stewart) is the
change to Toyota. I still think Hamlin makes the Chase, though.
Engel's Angles: Rounce is taking a gamble that Greg Biffle can rebound, because we have to see how things work out with new crew chief Greg Erwin, and whether he will fully embrace the Car of Tomorrow over the full campaign. Still, at this point, it's a fine pick because Biffle has the pure talent to come out of his two-season "slump" at any time. I nearly took Jeff Burton in the second round, and was very pleased to get him here. He won't be an elite driver, but Burton will be very consistent overall and will win another race this year. Ryan Newman is another quality selection; he will be poised to make a serious run at the Chase this year. Kevin Harvick can also be a terrific bargain here if he simply avoids bad luck. Mark Martin is a very good pick as a part-timer, and Juan Pablo Montoya will be set to seriously challenge for a Chase berth. This is my favorite round in terms of solid selections.
Harris' strategy: Wow, last year's Daytona 500 champ really fell, huh? Ryan Newman went in front of him, as did both of his teammates, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton. While I'm worried about Harvick's ability to compete on the intermediate unrestricted speedways, and wouldn't have taken him much higher than this, at this spot he's a great value pick.
Engel's Angles: I'm not liking the Bobby Labonte pick. The No. 43 team is in a rebuilding stage. Consistency will be a real issue for Labonte this year. Jamie McMurray is another driver who needs to show us more consistency, and he will be in and out of fantasy lineups. Kasey Kahne has a lot to prove after a down season, but he is a good value at this point. Elliott Sadler was a disappointment last season and Davis won't use him with a lot of confidence this year, either. Sadler will struggle over a full campaign in the COT. Reed Sorenson and David Ragan could both take significant steps forward in 2008 and are fine upside/sleeper picks here.
Harris' strategy: Sure, Kahne stunk last year, but this is too low for him. I had him ranked 17th, and felt like even that was a little low. Kahne has reportedly found something while testing in Vegas and Fontana that he thinks will help him get back on track for '08, and as a No. 4 fantasy driver, he's quite a stud. I would've taken him over Montoya, McMurray, Labonte and Mark Martin (because of Martin's partial schedule).
Engel's Angles: David Gilliland is a restrictor-plate demon, but I can't trust him on most other tracks yet. I was happy to get J.J. Yeley, who had an average finish of 22.6 last year, compared to Gilliland's 27.4. I expect Yeley to deliver a healthy amount of top-20 finishes this year, which is all I can ask from a fifth-rounder. The switches to Hall of Fame Racing and Toyota obviously will prevent him from having a true breakthough season, though. I'm not taking chances on open-wheel invaders with a lack of stock car experience, especially in the case of Sam Hornish Jr. At least Dario Franchitti can share information with Montoya, who went down the same path. Dave Blaney was the best Toyota driver last year and will make more strides toward respectability.
Harris' strategy: I had Franchitti rated 26th, but as the draft wore on and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted him as my bench guy. No way I start him right away, but he's a talented dude, and Montoya will help his transition from open-wheel racing. If Franchitti had been gone, I might've taken Robby Gordon, simply because he's a sure bet for a good finish on road courses; by taking Franchitti, I get a great roadie finisher with the upside of him possibly being competitive on other tracks part-way through the year.
Mark Garrow's best and worst mock draft selections
As I sit down to digest our NASCAR draft with an eye toward selecting the best three picks and the worst three picks, in both categories the first two leap off the page. After that, it gets a bit more difficult and I've had to do a little extra rubbing on the crystal ball.
Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are clearly the top two picks in this draft. They are money in the bank, and just to make it fair, should have to tow around a Brinks truck. Both are a gimmie top-10 finisher everywhere we go and probable top-5 contenders each time they take the green flag. And they're running out of space on the wall for all the checkered flags. You would need a mental evaluation by the boys in the white coats if you had one of the first two picks and you bypassed one of these guys.
Four drivers, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr., were considered for my third pick in the best of category. I think all four will get off to quick starts in 2008. Kenseth and Edwards should be really strong in the upcoming races at California and Vegas. Earnhardt now has steam under the hood he's never had before and a burn in the belly like he's never had before, but Stewart and the Toyota power will be hard to beat at Daytona and beyond.
Again, when it comes to the first two picks in this category, it doesn't take a lot of thought. Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti will struggle in the opening races. This is a whole new ballgame. Both are great drivers, but are raw rookies when it comes to stock cars and in this draft, they stick out like a pimple in the middle of your forehead.
I also don't think J.J. Yeley is going to set the world on fire at the start of 2008. There's potential there, but Hall of Fame Racing doesn't get as much help from Joe Gibbs Racing as some people think. Yeley is pretty tight with JGR, his ex-employer, and that should help the information flow. From Gibbs, Yeley will get good cars and great motors, but they're lacking a lot of the little things the teams up front have and that will hurt them. Plus, the Indiana driver has to prove he can bring his A-game to the track on a consistent basis.