It was no surprise that the Hendrick Motorsports "drought" in 2008 finally ended on Saturday night at Phoenix. Jimmie Johnson had been building up to his first victory of the year, with finishes of fourth and second at Martinsville and Texas, respectively.
Johnson's fantasy owners can now rest easier, as it's apparent he has regained much of the form that helped him win the past two Sprint Cup championships. Of course, it won't be nearly as easy for Johnson's owners to win a fantasy championship this season as it was last year, when Jeff Gordon's owners were the only real other threats to take the league title. Johnson owners will have to fight or catch fantasy players who have their teams anchored by drivers such as Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch.
The Johnson victory is a relief for his owners, not a signal that their main driver is about to help them dominate their league. Surely, we have not seen the last Johnson win this year, and back-to-back victories would be no major surprise, nor would a run of strong finishes in the next few events. Still, it must be noted that Johnson is fourth in the Sprint Cup standings, and while Jeff Burton might not stay on top for much longer, don't expect to see Kyle Busch drop out of the top half of the "golden dozen" any time soon, and Edwards should rise from his current spot of ninth. Denny Hamlin, who is seventh, remains a real contender as well, and you never know when a hot streak might come from eighth-place Clint Bowyer.
Johnson's owners certainly cannot have any peace of mind, and any moves they can make in FSR leagues won't satisfy them. It will be very tough in many leagues to acquire Edwards or Kyle Busch without having to toss in another very good driver, and you don't want to tear apart the foundation of your team if it is currently in first or second place. You also surely don't want to take on a driver who is not performing as well as Johnson yet. Now is no time to make a deal for Matt Kenseth or Kurt Busch and hope for a turnaround when you have finally received the expected return on Johnson, who was an early first-round pick in most FSR leagues.
Johnson remains the best fantasy driver in the Hendrick Motorsports stable, even though Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still ahead of him in the Cup standings (third overall). Earnhardt has been very consistent, but most of his owners must admit they are a bit frustrated, hoping to have seen his first win of 2008 by now. He has six top-10 finishes and three top-5 outings in eight starts, with an average finish of 10.5 that truly doesn't reflect how dependable he has been. Yet Earnhardt's owners now have to be wondering, when does he go from simply reliable to outstanding? He's been quite a big tease so far.
Earnhardt's owners and his scores of dedicated fans have been getting regular chances to cheer as he has shown winning form often at some point in many events, leading for 355 laps in six races. He led for 87 laps at Phoenix and has led for 264 laps in the past three events. While the switch to HMS has made him capable of earning a top-5 every week, Earnhardt can't seem to finish well enough despite showing flashes of victorious form on a regular basis. He has not finished in the top 5 in the past three races and has not placed better than fifth in six of eight races so far. Right now, it doesn't look like you can win your FSR league if Earnhardt is your top driver, but if you are lucky enough to have him as your No. 2 guy, which would be rare, there is no real reason to be frustrated.
Once he puts it all together for one race, which could be any time in the near future, Earnhardt will earn his first win of the season and put three-plus years of frustration behind him. He has already taken the first step, which is to be more consistent than he was in his final season at DEI while marking himself as a true Chase driver with his new team. When that win comes, it will be his first since May 2006 and just his third going back to 2005.
Earnhardt should win more than once this season. I would not consider him a true championship contender, though, despite the fact that he does look capable of finishing in the top 5 in the Cup standings. Edwards and Kyle Busch will win more races than he will this year, and so will Johnson. While I would love having Earnhardt as the second driver on my Stock Car Challenge roster, it's a long season and some disappointing finishes are certainly ahead as well.
I would wait until he wins that first race of the season, and then see if you can sell high on Earnhardt, using his reliability as an added selling point, also quoting figures like laps led to strengthen your case. Trades in FSR leagues seem to be quite rare, so your timing has to be perfect. If you can nab a guy like Johnson when Earnhardt is outperforming him for a short period, go for it. I would much rather have the established champion than a guy who has regained respectability but still appears to be a year away from re-emerging as a real Cup championship contender.
It's certainly better to be an Earnhardt owner than to be leaning on Jeff Gordon right now. After missing out on a Cup title last year, Gordon was a preseason favorite to dominate often in 2008 as he sought his fifth Cup championship, and he was a No. 1 overall pick in many FSR leagues. He's been very erratic so far, though, resurrecting memories of his up-and-down 2006 season. He may be even less reliable than he was two years ago, at least at this point of the season. Gordon only has three top-10 finishes in the first eight races, and his average finish is 18.9 so far. He has failed to finish in the top 10 in three of the past four events, and placed 13th at Phoenix, where he never was a threat.
Gordon's owners in FSR leagues truly have no choice but to wait and hope for better results. He is a better driver than his results have indicated so far, and his great pedigree and past history offer lots of reassurance. You can be certain that his team will be working hard to correct the car issues that have seemed to plague Gordon in the past two races. Right now, though, he has no real trade value in FSR leagues, as those who have drivers performing better than him won't want him, and you don't want to make a trade for a similarly underperforming driver who doesn't have the same upside potential as Gordon.
If Earnhardt or Gordon, and even Tony Stewart, haven't lived up to your expectations so far, there are likely better times ahead. It could be worse. You could be relying on Kurt Busch, who is off to a simply awful start in 2008. Busch finished 23rd for the second consecutive week and has failed to crack the top 20 in three consecutive races and four of the past six. He has not finished in the top 10 in the past seven races, and he has an average finish of 19.4. I honestly feel bad for the guy who told me last year that he thought fantasy racing was "great."
Busch may be able to turn things around sometime soon, but those disappointing early finishes seem to be an indicator that at best, he will be up-and-down the rest of the way. In the meantime, there's no real way you can justify reserving him in an FSR league, and he has zero trade value while he continues to drag your team down in the standings. So for owners of Earnhardt and Gordon, there's a lot more hope to have when you compare your situations to those who are suffering with Kurt Busch.
I haven't overlooked the recent struggles of another top driver, Matt Kenseth, either. He has finishes of 30th and 38th in two of his past three races. I'm not worried about him, but I don't believe Kenseth will push Edwards, Johnson or Kyle Busch for the Cup championship this year. He'll finish in the top 7 in the standings, though, and if you can pair him with another very good No. 2 driver on your FSR team, your championship hopes are still very much alive.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.