For Junior Nation, Sunday's win at Michigan International Speedway was pure bliss. You could feel the joy spread, even as far as my living room in New York. My wife, Victoria, a dedicated member of Junior's fan army, started celebrating late Sunday afternoon, and I don't believe she has stopped smiling since then.
For Fantasy Racing Nation, though, the view is laced with much less emotion, unless you simply happen to be one of those fans who love Dale Earnhardt Jr. and also have him on their fantasy racing teams. The objective and savvy fantasy owner saw this long-awaited win coming, and now it's just a matter of how well Earnhardt can fare from here.
Earnhardt was having a solid season before Michigan, but some bad luck derailed him from chances to win in some prior weeks. This time, his luck balanced out and he didn't run out of fuel. Now, with a sense of major relief, Earnhardt can move forward and become a serious contender for the Sprint Cup championship and a key performer on many fantasy championship squads.
As we move deeper into the 2008 schedule, we are seeing some new trends develop, while a few remain unchanged. Kasey Kahne has re-emerged as a contender, while Kyle Busch remains the clear favorite to win the Cup championship and lead a lot of teams to fantasy titles in the process. Earnhardt now seems like the biggest threat to challenge Busch, as Carl Edwards hasn't been able to build enough on some fine early runs. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are showing no real signs of regaining their past form on a consistent basis.
Earnhardt's owners can now look forward to more success and at least two more wins this season. While any owners who are led by Busch won't be easy to catch, if your lineup includes Earnhardt and has better balance than the Busch-led ones, you're in good shape. As I have said before, it will take a fully balanced fantasy squad to ultimately pass the Busch owner in your standings. With Earnhardt ready to regain his place among the Cup series' best drivers, he is capable of being the crux of a championship fantasy squad.
Earnhardt now has seven top-5 finishes and 11 top-10 showings in 2008, and he's going to vie for a top-5 spot in many events in the weeks ahead. Consistency and reliability have already become his new signatures in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Using the momentum of the MIS win, Earnhardt likely will go on a strong run of finishes in the weeks ahead. It certainly would not be surprising to see him win back-to-back races, or come through with a few top-three finishes in the near future. Now that the pressure to win has been eased, a happy Earnhardt can finally start living up to his tremendous potential again.
For owners of Earnhardt's top Hendrick teammates, the outlook isn't nearly as bright. Earnhardt has clearly overtaken Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as the main attraction and top driver at HMS for now. Gordon continues to perform in a mediocre manner in comparison to his past performances, and even if he can find new life when the Cup stretch begins, it won't be enough to help fantasy owners, who are more concerned with his cumulative results for the season and won't be helped much by a late surge if he continues to swim below expectations. Top-5 finishes seem like a major feat for Gordon right now, and a victory in the near future might actually come as a minor shock.
Johnson led for 65 laps on Sunday and looked as though he might contend for the win for a while, but in the end, Johnson turned out to be just another tease who couldn't even come through with a top-5 finish. You may see flashes of Johnson's 2007 and 2006 seasons on occasion, but his 2008 season seems to be doomed to bouts of inconsistency and unmet expectations. The run of glory is over for Johnson's fantasy owners, at least for this season. He should win another race or two, but the rest of his schedule will be littered with disappointing performances. Like the New York Yankees, his past looms large, but the glory days now seem far behind.
The fifth-place performance of Tony Stewart, while largely unnoticed in the din of the Earnhardt celebration, was certainly not overlooked by his fantasy owners. Stewart is well-known for starting slow, then turning up the level of his performances in the summer. The next two races or so should go a long way in telling us whether or not Stewart's season can be revived. His owners are now facing a critical stretch, because if he doesn't start delivering top finishes on a regular basis soon, fantasy teams anchored by Stewart are simply going to fade from contention.
It's also an exciting time for owners of Matt Kenseth, who led for 41 laps and finished third. It was his best showing of the season, and now Kenseth has finished seventh or better in each of the past five races. His first win of the 2008 season is not far away, and after some early ups and downs, he's locked in again, reviving the hopes of fantasy owners who used their top draft choice on him. Kenseth will be another top contender for the Cup title and can carry his fantasy owners to great heights this season.
Brian Vickers finished fourth, and while he was clearly frustrated by what he perceived as a missed opportunity to nail down the win, he is the type of driver who can play a major role in deciding the fate of many fantasy teams. While it takes a Busch or Earnhardt to lead the way, the better-than-expected performances of guys like Vickers are prime examples of achieving true balance. Vickers, who came through with his third top-5 finish of the season, is a true fantasy "wild card" who can help boost your team higher in the standings this season. It's apparent he has arrived as a top-10 driver from the fantasy perspective.
The stories this week will continue to focus on Earnhardt, though, as the celebration lasts throughout the next few days. He will overshadow Busch for at least one week, and when the engines rev up again, Busch knows he will have Earnhardt battling him hard for supremacy on a regular basis. The Earnhardt celebration is more than just hype. It's a clear sign that it may no longer be a one-driver race in the Cup standings and fantasy leagues. This isn't simply buying into the hype. The Earnhardt machine is back in top form, and has the potential to alter the fantasy landscape in the weeks ahead.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.