Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Updated: November 20, 3:03 PM ET
2003 Fantasy Racing Recap
By Bryan Van Stippen
The end of the 2003 Winston Cup season only means teams will quickly get to work on their cars for the 2004 Nextel Cup season and the Daytona 500. But before moving on to some predictions, let's take a look at the fantasy season that was.
Consistency was the key for Winston Cup champion Matt Kenseth, who posted 25 top 10s with just one win -- the second time in the modern era in which a champion has won just one race. Successful fantasy owners also relied on consistency to rise to the top. Here's a look at the drivers who helped and hurt the race for a fantasy title.
Most Consistent: Matt Kenseth
Just as Kenseth's consistency won him the championship, it also keyed many fantasy title runs. Kenseth took over the points lead early in the season and never relinquished it, as he was nearly 500 points ahead of the competition with a just a few races to go. At one point, Kenseth posted 26 top 15s in 28 races, never finishing worse than 22nd. He did have a few problems in the final eight weeks, finishing outside the top 30 three times -- including his worst finish of the season in the final race -- but no driver was better from week to week.
Most Fantasy Points: Ryan Newman
In his second season on the circuit, Newman proved to be a rising star. He had troubles in the first half of the season, with just eight top-10 finishes. Three of those were wins, but he also had six finishes of 38th or worse during that stretch. Beginning with a win at Texas in the seventh race, Newman did not go more than six races without a trip to victory lane. He had plenty of problems this season, with 11 finishes outside the top 20, but he led the series in wins (8) and posted a series-high 17 top 5s.
Most Reliable: Jimmie Johnson
After a remarkable 2002 rookie season in which he finished third in the point standings, Johnson moved up to second in 2003. Johnson posted three wins and 20 top 10s while finishing outside the top 20 just five times. He was the hottest driver on the circuit in the final seven races, finishing no worse than seventh place and finishing in the top three in the final six races. Johnson was more reliable than Kenseth or Newman in that span and has plenty of momentum heading into 2004.
Comeback of the Year: Terry Labonte
Labonte began to slide after winning a championship in 1996, finishing outside the top 20 in the point standings each of the last two years - the first time he had been outside the top 20 in his career. Not much was expected out of him in 2003, but the wily veteran posted his first win in three years by winning at Darlington. Labonte battled all season long, after posting just one top 10 finish in the first 12 races. Labonte then rattled off 14 finishes of 20th or better in a 15-race stretch, including seven top 10s. Although not spectacular after winning at Darlington -- with just two more top 10 finishes in the final 11 events -- Labonte climbed to 10th in the final standings and earned his first trip to New York in five years.
Biggest Disappointment: Dale Jarrett
Dale Jarrett entered the season with seven consecutive seasons in the top 10, including one championship. He won the second race of the season but could never get on track, changing crew chiefs early in the year before settling on Shawn Parker. Jarrett had just six subsequent top 10s, with zero top 5s. He finished 30th or worse 14 times and did not have a top-10 run in the final 12 races. By finishing 26th in the final standings, Jarrett matched the worst season of his career. Jarrett will be back in the No. 88 UPS Ford next season and will be looking to rebound from one of his worst seasons on the circuit.
Honorable Mention Biggest Disappointment: Michael Waltrip
In his third season with DEI, Michael Waltrip looked poised for his first career top-10 points finish. Waltrip won a career-high two races and posted a career-high eight top 5s. He was comfortably in the top 10 until late-season struggles dropped him out of contention. Starting at Bristol, he posted five consecutive finishes outside the top 25. He then won at Talladega but saw troubles once again in the final seven events, losing a pair of engines and getting involved in a pair of accidents. In the end, he finished 15th in the final standings, dropping one spot from last season.
Biggest Surprise: Jamie McMurray
This looked to be Elliott Sadler early in the season, and then Greg Biffle after a win at Daytona, but rookie Jamie McMurray outperformed both over the long haul. McMurray was especially impressive in the final half of the season, doing much better the second time around at most tracks. Although he did not get a win, McMurray posted five top 5s and 13 top 10s - more than Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin, or Mark Martin. In the final 13 races, McMurray had eight top 10s and just one finish outside the top 20 to win rookie of the year honors.
Bryan Van Stippen is the ESPN fantasy racing correspondent and senior staff writer for www.fantasygms.com. Email any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.