WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- It was just after 10 p.m. ET on a Friday night, and 10 of the most popular NASCAR drivers were still together. It came at the end of a long day of practice in their Sprint Cup or Nationwide Series cars -- some pulling double-duty -- yet there they were, all around a table inside the Watkins Glen International media center with their laptops in hand.
That's the power of fantasy football.
The drivers -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Austin and Ty Dillon, Chase Elliott, Regan Smith and Jamie McMurray -- stayed late to draft teams in a newly formed fantasy league. The league includes Matthew Berry, ESPN's Senior Fantasy Analyst, and the winning bidder in a charity auction. The proceeds from the auction benefit The V Foundation for Cancer Research.
Berry, perhaps the most well-known fantasy sports expert, said the idea for the league came from his friendship with Earnhardt.
"The Jimmy V Foundation came to me and said, 'We're looking for experiences (to auction off), and we know you and Dale are friends, is there anything we can do around NASCAR?' So I said, 'Well, he's also a fantasy football freak, why don't we try to do a league together?'
"I mentioned it to Dale, and 10 minutes later he texts me back and says, 'We're doing it, and here's all the drivers in the league.' Like one text from Dale, and 10 minutes later the league was filled."
Like the millions of fantasy football players, the drivers in the league had different levels of experience and myriad drafting strategies. Ty Dillon had the first pick and went with proven fantasy-performer Adrian Peterson. Kenseth, a Wisconsin native, scooped up Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"I was the fifth pick, and Peyton Manning was still on the board, and I felt like I had to take him," Earnhardt said. "That late, I didn't think he would still be there. I got some good running backs regardless. I like my team."
The draft shed a light on the drivers' personalities and relationships off the race track. Berry joined in as they all discussed potential strategy and picks. Kahne, a Washington native, drew some laughter when he was the first player to draft a defense (Seattle, in Round 6) and a kicker (in Round 9!).
Earnhardt remained quiet for nearly the entire draft, focused on his laptop and the picks being made. His competitive nature on the track extended to this fantasy football draft.
"I take it pretty seriously," Earnhardt said, smiling a bit. "If you want to do your best, you got to put all you can into it. You can study and study and study, months in advance, but the draft really changes how you pick. You want to win."
"We have a lot of drivers that are pitching in that I have to thank -- just a lot of guys that pitched in their time to be part of this to raise a lot of money, so I want to thank them, too."
Taking it all in was the winner of the charity auction, David White. White, a 39-year-old dentist from Reno, Nevada, said he's a "diehard" NASCAR fan. He'd never participated in a fantasy football league before, but the chance to meet and hangout with some of NASCAR's best was too good to pass up. His winning bid came in at just less than $12,000.
"I sat around with the best drivers, and had a great time," White said. "I'm involved in a lot of non-profit work in my state and so I'm always able to go ahead and look at the auction items for ESPN. That's what I'm so impressed with, ESPN put these auction items together that are unbelievable. And it was for such a good cause that it was an easy thing for me to go ahead and do."
The night ended with Berry assessing White's fantasy roster. The draft may have lasted for a only a few hours, but being in a fantasy league means White will continue to compete against, and maybe even trash-talk, NASCAR's best for the next four months.
Star power from all sides made the night possible.
"I wouldn't have been able to get all these drivers together in one room for a football draft," Earnhardt said. "So I think (Berry) is the glue to the whole thing. It really brought us all together, so it's going to be a lot of fun."
A lot of fun for a good cause.
"It's a great group of guys," Berry said, "and we raised a lot of money for cancer research, which is the most important thing."
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