In the offseason, the biggest story among NASCAR fans and fantasy owners alike was Dale Earnhardt Jr. moving to Hendrick Motorsports. The move has certainly improved Earnhardt's outlook and made him a much more reliable fantasy driver so far. Yet he is being overshadowed, as is nearly everyone else, by the guy he replaced at HMS. Four races into the new season, the changes at HMS have ultimately paid off greatly for Kyle Busch, the guy Earnhardt replaced in the Hendrick stable.
Yes, it's a new year, and apparently a new outlook in fantasy racing, at least for now. Past results at certain tracks are not serving us at all well when compiling our lineups, especially in salary cap-style games like ESPN.com's Stock Car Challenge. But we all know the schedule is long, and Busch could be mired in a mini-slump at some point in the months ahead, while Jimmie Johnson resurfaces as a major force. For now, though, it's time to stop relying on the past, especially last season's results, so heavily. Who thought we would still be waiting for an HMS victory at this point in the season and that we would get a Toyota triumph first? Probably the same people who thought Derek Anderson was destined to rise to fantasy stardom last summer.
Johnson has been on my SCC roster for four weeks now, as I have been patiently waiting for him to live up to his billing as a No. 1 fantasy driver. He'll get cut loose this week after finishing 13th at Atlanta Motor Speedway. There are new "anchors" for a fantasy lineup so far, and I want them on my roster. I can't lean on Johnson and Jeff Gordon to lead the way right now when I can replace them with Busch or Carl Edwards, who certainly deserved a better fate at AMS and was a major threat to keep Busch out of the headlines today until he ran into car trouble.
If you play in an ESPN FSR league, your standings probably don't look like you thought they should, and once you start falling behind in a larger league, it's a very daunting task to catch up. Much like in rotisserie baseball, it always appears like a tremendous uphill battle to catch up when you fall to a low spot in the standings early in the season. Unlike fantasy baseball, though, there are only a few players per team, and the possibilities for a roster shakeup seem very dim. Trade offers for Busch or Greg Biffle this week likely will be turned down, and there's not much to look at on the free-agent list. Mike Skinner, anyone? He's qualified twice in a row now in a two different cars. Yuck, at least from the fantasy perspective.
Again, though, it's a very long season that will see other drivers take a turn in the spotlight and a few disappointing performances from the guys who are hot right now. So there's no reason to give up hope yet. At the same time, none of us can expect Busch or Edwards to drop out of the top of the field on a regular basis anytime soon. Yes, Edwards is 17th in the points standings, but it's common knowledge by now he and Busch have consistently had the best-looking cars on the track every week. Earnhardt's wins at the Gatorade Duels and Bud Shootout were a nice way to start the season, but now that it counts, the spotlight clearly belongs to Busch, and Edwards will jump back in with him at the top quickly after finishing 42nd at Atlanta due to engine problems.
I'm certainly not discrediting Earnhardt in any way; I'm very glad to have him on one of my FSR teams. I'm not going to move him, and he has been the best HMS driver so far and could be the first to end up in Victory Lane this season. He looked dominant early at AMS, and I expect at least two wins from him overall in 2008. Yet it appeared to be a simple matter of time before Busch cruised to his first win during the first three weeks, and once he earned the lead at Atlanta on Sunday, he was not going to be denied. Even Edwards couldn't challenge him when it counted. Busch has had a car capable of winning every week, and he finished the job in the fourth event after he had looked worthy of a victory in all of the first three races.
So if you have Busch on your roster, you're likely at or near the top of your standings today. You may get some trade offers for him this week, but why entertain any of them? There's no real reason to sell high with Busch. Don't mess with success. Of course, in some leagues there will be exceptions. Someone will make a very unusual offer to get Busch and will get him. In any FSR league, though, where you start four drivers, it's going to take at least surrendering your top two drivers if you're the guy trying to get Busch, and the Busch owner's second driver is going to have to be a significant downgrade from your second guy. Offering nearly your whole team likely won't be enough to acquire the driver of the No. 18. Why should Busch's owner sacrifice his team for yours? And there is really no one-for-one trade that will work to get Busch right now.
It's actually scary to consider Busch might be slightly better than his results have indicated so far. He has an average finish of 5.0 in the first four races, and has led in each event, for a total of 329 laps. So those who own Busch should just enjoy the view from the top today. Edwards' owners, though, will feel frustrated for only a few days until the next race at Bristol. Even though Busch's owners can see his AMS win as no shock, they also breathed a sigh of relief when Edwards was knocked out of the race. Edwards was the only one realistically capable of denying Busch on Sunday.
Busch had an average draft position of 8.0 in FSR leagues, and Edwards had an ADP of 6.6. Meanwhile, Gordon and Johnson were the first two picks off the board in most drafts. Until further notice, though, Busch and Edwards have replaced the HMS duo as the elite drivers in fantasy racing.
Johnson has an average finish of 17.8 so far, with only one top-10 showing. We kept waiting for him to make a strong run to the top of the field at AMS, but it never happened. Gordon looks much like he did last season, which is good, but not quite good enough for a guy with an ADP of 1.6. He has dealt with mishaps in two of the first four events, but he has not looked like a real contender for a win other than the first night at Fontana, before the delays came. Gordon has a top-5 car every week, but another guy or two always seems to be faster. He's running up front a lot, but let's be realistic: Gordon is supposed to bring you wins, not just consistent top-5 outings, which proved to be not quite enough to win the championship last year.
Gordon's owners, however, are confident he will go on a very strong string of finishes in the near future, but he will only be joining and/or chasing Busch and Edwards at the top of the ladder in fantasy racing. Johnson is showing no real signs of his championship form, but his owners have no choice but to be patient or trade him for another disappointing driver, whereas guys like Denny Hamlin would likely not quite bounce back to reach Johnson's usual performance levels.
It's going to be a very crowded picture at the top of the Cup standings all year long, and savvy fantasy leaguers know it will also take more than Busch or Edwards to win a league. Biffle's comeback season is obviously no illusion, and Tony Stewart reasserted himself nicely with a second-place finish at AMS. Owners of Kasey Kahne can be ready to see him bounce back quickly after he spun out Sunday, and Clint Bowyer regained the faith of fantasy players with a sixth-place finish. Matt Kenseth claimed a major moral victory, placing eighth after starting at the back of the field. It's not going to be all about Busch and Edwards throughout the whole schedule. But in fantasy leagues, it's certainly your mission to catch and/or keep up with their owners from this point on.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.