Jimmie Johnson's fantasy owners were thrilled to see him battling for the lead late in Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway. They certainly weren't surprised to see him charging hard for yet another win in the most important weeks of the season. Johnson's recent surge of great success has pushed many fantasy players to the top of their leagues with only two events remaining.
What was a minor surprise, though, is that Johnson was not battling Jeff Gordon for the win. While Johnson aggressively battled for the victory, a strategy some onlookers questioned with so much on the line, Gordon was trying to hold onto his spot in the top 10. While Gordon was motoring toward a seventh-place finish, Johnson was battling a scrappy and determined Matt Kenseth for a trip to Victory Lane. Johnson's owners were overjoyed when he ultimately took the lead for good, while Gordon's owners had to be satisfied with a top-10 showing. Nice, but not quite good enough to maintain a lead in many fantasy leagues with two races remaining.
In a year when NASCAR made sure that victories would become more important in terms of winning the championship, the formula is working perfectly for Johnson as he dominates the final events of the schedule. Johnson has won three races in a row and nine overall, and earned his first-ever win at Texas this week. He has impressively overcome his recent deficit to his Hendrick teammate and now sits in prime position to repeat as Nextel Cup champion. His owners can also taste victory, and his Texas win proved he is performing well enough to win at any track. He has never won at Phoenix or Homestead, but such past results certainly do not concern his owners anymore.
For Gordon's owners, the championship hopes seem to be slipping away a bit, although a 30-point deficit can easily be overcome in the final two races. He certainly needs to make a strong push for a win at Phoenix, which would be his seventh win of the 2007 season. He won from the pole last season at Phoenix, and while he also has never won at Homestead, he's going to enter the final week with a great sense of urgency and will certainly challenge for his first win at the site.
It's now or never for Gordon if he wants to earn his first championship since the 2001 season. He has delivered two consecutive third-place finishes in points, and if he doesn't push hard for a win at Phoenix, all his great accomplishments this season may only result in a second-place finish for himself and his fantasy owners. Gordon certainly has enjoyed a terrific season overall. He has 28 top-10 finishes and 20 top-5 showings. That still may be enough to help some owners win titles in league where Johnson's owners have a less-balanced squad around him.
Johnson is a true champion, and he has performed like one recently. Now is the time for Gordon to display his championship form, and that means another outstanding performance from him this upcoming week. Johnson may have the lead now, but it's going to be a battle to the very end, for both the Nextel Cup championship and your league title. In salary cap style games, both drivers will be great anchors of your squad as you attempt to wrap up first place in your group in the next two events.
Angling for the lead
Johnson and Gordon certainly won't find it easy to maneuver for wins over the next two weeks. Many spoilers are going to challenge them for victories, most with a sense of "nothing to lose" as they look ahead to next season. While half of the Chase for the Cup field remains mathematically alive, it's really only a two-driver race at this point, so you can also expect aggressive driving from other Chase competitors who have all but officially been eliminated.
According to NASCAR, although there were 27 lead changes calculated at the start/finish line at Texas on Sunday, a total of 55 green-flag passes for the lead took place around the track. The 55 passes for the lead is the highest number at Texas Motor Speedway since the statistic first became used in 2005. The previous high at Texas was 33. The duel between Johnson and Kenseth contributed well to such numbers. They swapped the lead twice on Laps 328 and 329, three times on Lap 332 and twice again on Lap 333. Such dramatic racing should continue in the final two events, and fantasy owners should expect a healthy amount of caution flags and close duels for victories.
Around the track
Ryan Newman finished fifth at Texas. It was his sixth top-5 finish of the season. He also has two top-5 finishes in the past three races. Look for Newman to finish strong in the final two events as he begins to build positive momentum for next season.
Jamie McMurray finished ninth. It was his best finish since he placed eighth at Dover in late September. McMurray has nine top-10 finishes this season, but is not a reliable driver for the final two races. He has never finished higher than 12th at Phoenix. He has finished 25th and 18th in his past two races at Homestead.
Jeremy Mayfield finished 22nd at Texas. It tied for his best finish of the year, and his second in the Best Buy Chevrolet. Mayfield does have a pair of top-25 finishes in his past four races.
Juan Pablo Montoya started third, but finished 25th. David Ragan, however, was involved in a crash and is still 20 points behind Montoya for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors. Montoya should be a fine choice in the final two events as he tries to wrap up the award.