Denny Hamlin walked into a small ballroom a few steps away from the Wynn's grand hall, clutching a small trophy for placing ninth in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings.
After finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in 2010, Hamlin pictured himself sitting at head table at the 2011 postseason banquet and celebrating with his Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Instead, little went the way the driver anticipated it would. Hamlin was a Chase also-ran, won just once after winning eight races the year before and parted ways with his crew chief after the season.
But Hamlin was far from alone when it comes to Chase runner-ups who flop the next season. Since 2005, every second-place finisher in the season standings has seen his win total and points position decline the following year – often significantly.
So when Hamlin was asked on that banquet night whether the Curse of Second Place was real or a myth, he didn't hesitate to answer.
"I think there's something to it – there's gotta be," Hamlin said. "It's not just random numbers that you see."
Moments later, Carl Edwards came into the room and vowed not to let his second-place points finish – he actually tied with champion Tony Stewart – negatively affect his 2012 campaign. He was well aware of the history and the talk of the runner-up jinx, but Edwards declared he would do everything in his power not to let that happen to him.
But as NASCAR heads to Atlanta this weekend – with just two races until the 10-race playoff begins – Edwards is winless, outside the top 10 in points and in danger of missing the Chase despite being the preseason favorite to win it.
The disappointment in the team's performance, combined with crew chief Bob Osborne's health problems, caused Osborne to step down halfway through the season.
Edwards has insisted multiple times that his heartbreaking result in 2011 has nothing to do with 2012. But how can it not?
"I know everybody else thinks they know better than me, and they may, but I am telling you that I don't think last year has an effect on how fast or slow we are going at these races," Edwards said recently.
That argument might be easier to accept if the same thing hadn't happened to Hamlin and so many others in the Chase era.
In the seven years prior to 2012, drivers who finished second in the standings averaged six wins. But the next year, those same drivers averaged less than one win.
Plus, those runner-up drivers have dropped an average of eight positions in the standings the next year. Edwards has dropped 10.
Of course, Edwards has been through this same thing before. In 2008, he won a whopping nine races and finished second to Johnson in the standings. The next season? He went winless and finished 11th.
But even on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Edwards continued to insist the 2011 finish had nothing to do with 2012. Instead, he said this season's results were due to a combination of bad luck and poor performance.
"There are a couple reasons we're in this position in points," he said. "One of them is not the fact that we finished second last year in the championship. Truly. We're adults. We're good competitors and we've finished second before. I've had disappointment."
So the two main factors in Edwards' mind – not including the 2011 hangover – are "terrible luck" and Osborne's health problems which left him "not really able to perform at the highest level." Add those together, Edwards said, and it's equaled "mediocre performance."
Edwards said there was no reason he shouldn't be as fast as Roush Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth – both because of their driving skill and their equipment.
"I feel like we're all at the same level on average driving-wise, and I feel like at the shop we all share enough stuff that we should have been better performance-wise," Edwards said. "It's been a lack of performance and bad luck, truly. I don't wake up every morning and go, 'Man, I can't believe we didn't win that championship last year.' "
So maybe Edwards is right. Maybe there's no damaged confidence or personality conflicts within the team, and maybe what's happened to his team is just bad circumstances.
But even if that's the case, many observers will tie last year's disappointment to this season's results if he misses the Chase – and maybe even if he makes it.
And you can be certain that whoever finishes second this year will suddenly have an avalanche of unwanted scrutiny and pressure thanks to an all-too-familiar trend.
So is the curse of the second-place finisher real? Look at the numbers below and decide for yourself.
|Season||2nd-place driver (wins)||Following season (wins)|
|2011||Carl Edwards (1)||???|
|2010||Denny Hamlin (8)||9th (1)|
|2009||Mark Martin (5)||13th (0)|
|2008||Carl Edwards (9)||11th (0)|
|2007||Jeff Gordon (6)||8th (0)|
|2006||Matt Kenseth (4)||4th (2)|
|2005 (tie)||Carl Edwards (4)||12th (0)|
|2005 (tie)||Greg Biffle (6)||13th (2)|