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After seven races, the early trends have been established in the Sprint Cup series. Richard Childress Racing has replaced Hendrick Motorsports as the early "team to beat." Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick currently lead the points standings, and Clint Bowyer also sits inside the Top 12 as the series heads to Phoenix International Raceway for the eighth race of the schedule.
Carl Edwards also has established himself as a dominant force. Jack Roush has the most wins of any owner at Phoenix, with five. Edwards is his best bet to score a win in any given week, and if RCR is early the team to beat, then Edwards is the "driver to beat." In addition to his three wins so far, he also leads all drivers in average running position (8.6) and percentage of laps in the top 15, 87.5 percent.
While it's a long season and some drivers who are hot now will cool off, and other disappointing ones are bound to turn things around, Stock Car Challenge players must focus on the shorter term and heavily consider results from the first seven races in addition to past results at Phoenix when setting their lineups this week. There's really not much room for taking chances on disappointing drivers when you keep in mind that there are only 11 races in the first segment of the game, which ends on May 10 at Darlington. If you're going to protect your lead, make a push for the top, or simply gun for a more respectable finish in your group, you must make as many "safe" lineup selections as possible in the next four events.
Jimmie Johnson (Value: $23.8 million): Hendrick Motorsports no longer reigns supreme, but Johnson has been building toward the team's first win of 2008 with strong showings in the past two events. After an erratic start to the season, Johnson has finished fourth and second in the past two races and is primed for victory. He has definitely returned to being a safe selection. Johnson won the second race at Phoenix last season and has finished seventh or better in his past five races there. He also has three consecutive top-5 showings at the site, and seven top-10 outings in nine Phoenix starts. Johnson has an average finish of 6.6 at Phoenix, and in the past six races there, he leads all drivers in average running position (5.7) and laps in the top 15 (1,758 or 93.9 percent), and ranks second with 155 of the fastest laps run during that span. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the most dependable Hendrick driver for fantasy purposes so far this season, but Johnson can earn the first win of the year for the team this week.
Carl Edwards (22.8): Considering he is the early favorite to win the Cup title this season, this is a pretty good price tag for Edwards, and you have to lock him in if you can based on his strong showings to this point. He led for 123 laps in his win at Texas and now has four top-10 finishes in 2008, although he has performed even better than that number would indicate. Edwards took the pole in the second Phoenix race last season but finished 42nd because of engine problems. He has finished seventh or better in four of seven Phoenix starts, though, and will challenge for his first-ever win at the site. In his past six races at Phoenix, he ranks third among all drivers with 130 of the fastest laps run.
Kyle Busch (22.0): He bounced back from a 38th-place showing at Martinsville to recapture the form that has marked him as another popular early-season pick to contend for the Cup championship. Busch finished third at Texas after leading for 50 laps, and considering how outstanding he has looked at times in the first seven races, you have to like the price tag on him also. He has four top-4 finishes in the first seven events of this season, and has one win and four finishes in the top eight in six career starts at Phoenix. Keep in mind that was before he came to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he is looking better than ever. He led 63 laps in his one victory at the site in 2005, but his previous results at Phoenix under the Hendrick banner make him look like a great pick as part of his new team this time out.
Kevin Harvick (22.0): Harvick has just missed the top 10 in the past two races but finished eighth or better in the second through fifth events of 2008 and has not finished worse than 14th so far. He has an average finish of 8.3 in the first seven events and has shone brightly at Phoenix in the past. Harvick swept both races at the site in 2006, leading for 252 laps in the second event. Last season, he finished 10th and sixth at the site, leading for 54 laps in the first race. Harvick will be the best of the Richard Childress entries this week. In his past six races at Phoenix, he ranks second among all drivers in average running position (7.0) and laps in the top 15 (1,669 or 89.2 percent). He also ranks fourth during that span with 127 of the fastest laps run.
Mark Martin (17.8): Martin is a solid selection whenever he appears in the entry list, and you have to like him again this week. He's the best bargain in the game, a veteran driver who will give you quality finishes most of the time, and his weeks off result in a regularly friendly price tag. Martin has finished in the top 10 in two of his past three races, and is coming off an eighth-place finish at Texas, his best outing in five events in 2008. Martin finished sixth and 12th at Phoenix last season. He has finished in the top 15 in seven of his past eight races at the site and has 14 top-10 finishes in 22 career Phoenix starts.
Bobby Labonte (17.2): Labonte has an average finish of only 21.1 so far this season, but he has four top-20 showings in seven races and is very capable of delivering a top-15 showing at Phoenix, when you consider his most recent results there. He finished eighth and 18th at the site last season, and it must be noted that he has five top-10 finishes in his past seven starts there. Phoenix is clearly one of Labonte's better tracks, and when you get in this price tier, you are dealing with no certainties. At worst, you can expect Labonte to finish in the 15 to 20 range, which won't hurt you overall.
Brian Vickers (15.2): Vickers can bust out to run well at any time and is a prime bargain driver at Phoenix. He has an average finish of 15.3 at the site, and has placed 13th, 11th and 21st in his past three races there. He has finished inside the top 20 in five of seven career starts at Phoenix. Vickers no longer has to qualify on time and has finished 16th or better in four of the first seven races in 2008.
Matt Kenseth (22.1) has three top-5 finishes in his past four Phoenix races. Tony Stewart has eight top-10 finishes in 12 career starts at Phoenix, but for a price tag of 22.8, you should be getting serious shots at wins, which he hasn't challenged for recently. Jeff Gordon (23.3) has an average finish of 8.3 at Phoenix. Jeff Burton (22.6) has nine top-10 finishes in 17 Phoenix starts. Greg Biffle (21.0) leads all drivers in the past six Phoenix races with 214 of the fastest laps run. Jamie McMurray (17.3) has never finished in the top 10 in nine Phoenix starts. J.J. Yeley (14.1) finished 14th in the second Phoenix race of 2007 and has an average finish of 20.8 there.
Jimmie Johnson (23.8): He may not win the championship again, but he has regained my confidence for SCC purposes.
Kevin Harvick (22.0): Even if he doesn't push for the win, I am looking for a top-5 outing.
Denny Hamlin (21.7): I wanted Kyle Busch, but he doesn't quite fit into my salary structure. Hamlin has finished third in two of his past three Phoenix events.
Mark Martin (locked at 17.3): I added him last week at Texas, and now I can reap the benefits of an outstanding SCC discount.
Brian Vickers (15.2): He may surprise me, and at the very least, I'll get a respectable finish this week.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.