During the first six races of the Nextel Cup season, Jeff Burton was always a contender, but never seemed destined to win. He appeared to be just a notch below the elite fantasy superstars, the type of driver who seemed to complement a Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson perfectly on a fantasy squad, yet he couldn't quite be the guy to build your team around because he didn't win enough.
Such perceptions may have changed after Burton won at Texas on Sunday. Burton narrowly missed a victory at Bristol, and with Matt Kenseth driving brilliantly late after taking the lead from Gordon, it seemed Burton was headed for another near-miss. Kenseth looked great as he held off a few initial attempts by Burton to pass him. Burton entered Sunday's race with only one victory in the past five seasons and the first six races of 2007.
Fantasy owners probably view Burton differently after he overcame Kenseth for a thrilling win, the type that slipped by at Bristol. Burton had five top-six finishes coming into Texas, but real respect, even from fantasy owners, comes with a victory. Now Burton can no longer be viewed as the ultimate runner-up type. His excellent finishes building up to this week set the stage for Sunday's victory, and now there is no doubt Burton is headed for a career season.
While Burton might not come away with as nearly as many wins as Johnson, and he could remain behind Gordon in the standings for the foreseeable future, he has now clearly marked himself as one of the elite drivers to own. Earlier this season, I proclaimed Johnson, Gordon and Tony Stewart as fantasy racing's "Big Three", the type of drivers who should anchor your rosters. Stewart has dropped out of that trio and is now replaced by Burton.
Not only did Burton have one of the best cars on the track Sunday, he also demonstrated great savvy and smarts. After passing a determined but slightly banged up Gordon, Burton quickly reeled in Kenseth. Burton remained relentless, as Kenseth held the lead for a good while and refused to let Burton pass. Ultimately, however, Burton's better car outworked Kenseth's steely approach.
Victories haven't come as often to Burton as his owners would like, and he has only led for a total of 23 laps this season. Yet fantasy leaguers should dismiss past history, to an extent, and look at the great momentum Burton is building. This could be his best season since 1999, when he won six races and delivered 18 top-5 finishes. Burton appears to be on his way to rivaling such totals while making a serious push for his first Nextel Cup championship.
More frustration for No. 24
It seemed like Jeff Gordon's early "close but not enough" disappointments were going to spur him to his first win at Texas in his career. Gordon led for 173 laps and had reclaimed the top spot when Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked, but Gordon could have ultimately passed Junior anyhow. When Gordon hit the wall late in the race, though, he was destined for yet another week of wondering what could have been, as he ultimately finished in fourth place. Gordon was visibly frustrated again, and that is only going to propel him to another outstanding finish and another major push for victory at Phoenix next week. He has never won there, either, and Gordon will be very hard for anyone to hold off on Saturday. He seems to be primed for that elusive first victory of 2007.
Many racing experts expected Tony Stewart to build on his tremendous momentum he generated late in 2006 and dominate in '07, but he has not been able to make a strong consistent push for wins. A crash at Daytona when he had a chance to win has seemingly set the tone for an up-and-down season so far, with no real high moments yet. Stewart hasn't embarrassed himself at all, but he has only one top-5 finish so far and placed 25th at Texas after enduring through more than one mishap. After looking like he had a great car in the first few races, Stewart never challenged for a top spot. Stewart has not been a true contender in the past few races and he could be overpriced in some salary-style games at this time.
Junior's crazy day
After bouncing back with strong finishes in two short track, Car Of Tomorrow, races prior to Texas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed determined to keep the positive roll flowing on Sunday. Junior clearly had one of the best cars on the track, and after passing Gordon, he led for 96 laps and seemed to be in form for his first win of 2007. But a wreck ruined his chances, and he finished the day as a controversial replacement for Kyle Busch in the No. 5 car. Despite his ultimate 36th-place finish, Junior did run well and should be among the better cars at Phoenix as he tries to put too much early bad luck behind him.
Around the track
• A two-race layoff appeared to be no issue for Mark Martin, who finished third while never really challenging for the win. You'll have to change your lineup more than you like to keep Martin, but he is obviously worth the troubles.
• Greg Biffle rather quietly earned a sixth-place finish, and now has finished in the top six in two of the past three races. Biffle has still been an overall disappointment so far, but his progress should be watched closely the next race or two.
• Martin Truex Jr. finished in seventh, three races after he placed eighth at Atlanta. Consistency has been a major issue for Truex so far, so don't start to plug him in yet.
• David Stremme placed 10th, his best finish in a very respectable season so far. Stremme now has six top-20 finishes and four top-15 showings. He is easily one of the best value drivers in any format right now.
• Time to officially give up on Kasey Kahne. I said it before, but now I really mean it, after he finished 20th. If he can't contend at Texas, he's doomed for the rest of the year.
• Reed Sorenson deserved a much better fate Sunday. He was challenging for possibly the best finish of his career when car troubles sent him to the garage.
• An accident ruined Johnson's day, and he finished 38th. Johnson finished 39th to open the season, then scored a third-place finish and two wins in his next three races. Another Johnson surge seems imminent.
• Kevin Harvick was never a factor and finished 29th. He has not finished better than 25th in four of the past five races, and he's a driver to avoid if possible for the time being.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports. You can contact Scott here.