The Chase for the Nextel Cup began Sunday, also marking the most important stretch of the fantasy NASCAR schedule. The Chase began with a surprise victory from Clint Bowyer, and the next nine races will be a thrilling battle for your league title. With an eye on both the Nextel Cup championship and your own fantasy championships, I spoke to the Chase contenders at the ESPN Zone last week in New York City. The drivers not only gave their takes on the final races, they also talked about fantasy racing, providing some strategies for owners to consider. Here are the Chase driver reports, listed in order of how well I think each driver will run the remainder of the season:
1. Jeff Gordon: Gordon now has 16 top-5 finishes and 22 top-10s, more than any other driver so far this season. He finished second at Loudon on Sunday and is tied for the points lead. "It's not about dominating in these last races," Gordon said. "It's about delivering solid performances every week. We've been gearing up for this Chase, and it could be our year." Coming into New Hampshire, Gordon had an average running position of 8.6 in 2007 and had spent 6,172 laps in the top 15, so his owners can expect him to run near the front in every race. Said Gordon: "We run well at a lot of different tracks, and those type of statistics say a lot. But they don't say it all because everything starts over now."
Gordon is a dedicated fantasy football player who knows what it takes to win a fantasy league. "I love fantasy football because it's exciting and makes the sport more entertaining. You want to get solid players in fantasy racing, too, and we have a solid team," said Gordon. "I hope we can get the folks who play fantasy racing the points they are looking for." In his career at the 10 Chase tracks, Gordon has 30 wins, with 98 top-5 finishes and 134 top-10 showings. He added that teammate Casey Mears has "been getting better every week" and is a non-Chase driver to watch in the final races. Gordon was on point -- Mears finished eighth at Loudon.
2. Tony Stewart: He appears primed to win another championship, especially after missing the Chase last season. He finished third at Loudon and is now 10 points behind Gordon and Johnson. "Call it cocky if you want, but this team should never miss the Chase," Stewart said. "In my opinion, this is where we belong. We were embarrassed not to make it last year." Like Gordon, Stewart is aiming for consistency. "Obviously you would love to dominate, but there will still be some situations where you realize that you are ultimately racing for points."
Coming into Loudon, Stewart had an average running position of 11.4. "I think fantasy racing is good because it's a way for fans to keep active and involved," he said. "Obviously, they can't drive the cars with us, but they can test their skill and knowledge, and it's a unique opportunity to have fun with racing from a different standpoint." In his career at the current Chase tracks, Stewart has 14 wins and an average finish of 11.9 entering Sunday. He said teammate J.J. Yeley, who finished 10th at New Hampshire, is a possible fantasy bargain in the weeks ahead and will be a force in time. As for competing in Car of Tomorrow races during the Chase, Stewart said, "I don't care if they give us grocery carts. I just want to drive them faster than the next guy."
3. Jimmie Johnson: Johnson is tied for the points lead after finishing sixth at Loudon, but admitted "there is a lot of time for momentum to come and go." While Hendrick Motorsports dominated early in the season, Johnson said it's unlikely one organization will do that again during the Chase. His championship experience, however, gives him an edge. "Guys like myself, Stewart, Gordon, (Matt) Kenseth and Kurt Busch have been through the fire before," he said, referring to other past champions. "You know the mind games, even the ones you can play on yourself. Last season I was biting my nails and was on edge, and this time I'm more relaxed."
If you need drivers outside the Chase to balance your roster, Johnson suggested that Ryan Newman, who finished ninth at Loudon, is someone to watch on the 1.5-milers and that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will continue to be a force on the short tracks. Johnson has friends who play fantasy racing and appreciates their enthusiasm. "It's pretty cool, and you have to look for consistency, People are paying attention to the stats, watching the races at home and doing more research." Johnson has 16 career wins at the current Chase tracks and entering Sunday, he led the current field in average finish (10.2), average position (9.9) and percentage of laps in the top 15 (81.3) at those sites.
4. Denny Hamlin: Hamlin is a sleeper, but fantasy leaguers know he can be dependable and challenge the "Big Three" above at any time. Hamlin likely isn't panicking after finishing 15th at Loudon. "Most of our success this year has been based on consistency," Hamlin said. "We've been racing better for points than some guys who have been getting wins. We're like Matt Kenseth's team, in that we are always going to be there in the end." Hamlin is now ninth in the standings, but he's far from done. He knows how to handle adversity. Last year, he learned that he can't get rattled if he falls behind in the Chase standings early. "If you get behind early, you really can get caught up in trying to get back in contention and get thrown off your strategy. You can find yourself down early if you try too hard, and a lot of guys in the Chase for the first time face the danger of trying too hard."
Hamlin said he will be a quality fantasy choice throughout the Chase. "In fantasy, consistency is a good thing, I would think," he said. "If you want a safe choice, pick us." Hamlin has nine top-5 finishes and 19 top-10 showings at the current Chase tracks. This season, he has 14 top-10 finishes and only one DNF.
5. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth said avoiding bad luck will be a key early in the Chase. "If you can stay out of trouble and regularly run in the top 5, you'll be in good shape," he said. Kenseth finished seventh at Loudon and now sits seventh in the standings. Kenseth said if Gordon continues to build on his good start in the Chase, he could win it all again. "If he starts strong, he is going to be difficult to beat because he runs (well) everywhere, " Kenseth said. He added that Gordon, Johnson and Stewart are a little above the rest, with Hamlin as a darkhorse. "The other eight are grouped together," said Kenseth. "But anyone in this field can get their act together quickly and win it all."
Kenseth said he had no fantasy racing advice because he doesn't like to make predictions, but he is pretty happy with his fantasy football team. "I'm a little weak at quarterback, though," he said, referring to his combination of Philip Rivers and Alex Smith.
6. Kyle Busch: Busch finished fourth at Loudon and is 35 points behind Johnson and Gordon. Even though he and two of his Hendrick teammates are in the top five in the standings, Busch doesn't see Hendrick dominating the field like the organization did early on. "Hopefully we will, but a lot of other guys have caught up by now," he said.
Busch said he thinks fantasy racing is good for the sport. "With the sport becoming so competitive and the racers so strong, (fantasy racing) makes every race more compelling," said Busch. "If you know which tracks drivers are good on, it only adds excitement, and everyone can be more involved with racing." Busch had an average running position of 12.4 entering New Hampshire and won while driving the Car of Tomorrow at Talladega in April.
7. Kurt Busch: Kurt Busch fell to 12th in the standings after a 25th-place showing at Loudon, but he has bounced back from rough spots many times already this season. "We went through a tough stretch early, but we've run very well the last few weeks (before Loudon), and that's the kind of run it takes to win a championship."
Busch suggested that Ryan Newman is a good value in the last 10 races, adding that he expects his teammate to end up in Victory Lane at least once before the year is over. Busch described fantasy racing as a new, hot thing and a great challenge. "You have to know who is good to start at certain tracks and when to avoid drivers at other ones," Busch said. "You also must factor in the Car of Tomorrow versus the regular car. Busch said he expects to run well in the Chase at "downforce tracks" such as Texas, and he also listed Atlanta, Charlotte, Kansas and Homestead as sites where he expects to run well. At the current Chase tracks, Busch has 22 top-5 finishes and 43 top-10 showings.
8. Carl Edwards: Edwards is now eighth in the standings after finishing 12th at New Hampshire, but he still has his eye on the big picture. Edwards said he is looking forward to running at Dover again, and Atlanta is a "blast." He admitted to being more apprehensive about tracks like Martinsville and Talladega, which makes sense –- he has yet to crack the top 10 at Martinsville and had an engine problem at Talladega earlier this year. "We've been burned there before, and the bad days really weren't my fault," he said. Edwards said Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't done even though he is out of the Chase. "I have a strong feeling he's going to get another win before the year is over." He also cited Ryan Newman as a non-Chase sleeper down the stretch.
Edwards said his friends play fantasy racing. "They call me up after practice and want to know who is looking good. When I run well, I get a lot of positive feedback, and when I don't, they really let me know." At the current Chase tracks, Edwards has 25 top-10 finishes, and he has remained in the top 10 in the standings for 24 straight weeks.
9. Clint Bowyer: Bowyer's win Sunday was the first of his career. While his first victory put him only 15 points behind Johnson and Gordon, he is more focused on consistency going forward. "If you establish yourself right off the bat, anything is possible," Bowyer said. "Of course, you always want to win, but it's all about consistency." A good sign: Bowyer does not have a DNF in 2007.
Bowyer said he is not a big fan of the Car of Tomorrow but expects to run well in the new car in the Chase. He said he expects to be a dependable choice for fantasy players, adding that the team's consistency has improved. Bowyer added that Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray both could be good non-Chase drivers in the final races, and both followed that up by finishing in the top 15 at Loudon.
10. Martin Truex Jr.: Truex is sixth in the standings after finishing fifth at Loudon. He's a past Busch Series champion, but he feels that doesn't help him much at this level. "If you're not prone to cracking under pressure, that really doesn't matter," he said. "Dealing with pressure has never been an issue for me." Truex did admit, though, that when he scored his first victory at Dover this season, it was a relief. "It got to be fun again, and things seemed to get a whole lot easier from there." Truex moved into the Chase field with his win at Dover and has remained there since (the last 15 weeks).
Truex said fantasy racing is "great because it makes people feel like they are part of our sport." As for using him down the stretch, he said," You can depend on me to be consistent for about eight of 10 races." He got off to a good start yesterday.
11. Kevin Harvick: Harvick hasn't been dependable for fantasy purposes, and he finished 17th at Loudon, putting him 11th in the standings. He knows he must become more consistent in the final nine races. "It's time to take it to a new level and do things we haven't been able to do week after week," he said.
Harvick sees Dale Earnhardt Jr. as someone to watch. "(Junior) has the motivation to go out and win another race." He also mentioned David Ragan, who finished 19th at Loudon, as a rookie to watch in the final weeks. As for his own team, Harvick said to "pick us at the right tracks and when momentum is on our side." He mentioned Martinsville, Talladega and Homestead as sites where he would be a good choice. He has a total of 16 top-10 finishes at those tracks.
12. Jeff Burton: Burton's early-season hot streak seems like a distant memory, and he finished 18th at Loudon, putting him 11th in the standings. Burton, who likened the Chase to the playoffs in other sports, knows he must step up: "All the previous races mean nothing. Things like momentum and confidence are hogwash now."
Burton is a good guy to have on your roster even if it's not a true championship contender. He's consistent and will run near the top; Burton is the only other driver besides Gordon to remain in the top 12 throughout the entire first 27 weeks.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.