The curse of finishing in second place

Jerry Markland

Can Clint Bowyer break the curse of finishing in second place and do something that Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon couldn’t?

You wouldn't think finishing second in points would be viewed as a bad thing, but a look at the NASCAR record book says otherwise.

Not since 2002 has a driver gone on to win the Sprint Cup Series title after finishing second the year before. In fact, not once in the Chase era has a driver who finished in the runner-up position gone on to post more victories than they did the year before.

Call it a curse if you will.

A curse that's affected everyone from Cup champions Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth to perennial contenders Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin, each of whom has suffered a hangover that causes them to drop in the standings.

With more drivers capable of winning a title than ever before, it is understandable why it's hard to carry over success from one season to the next. Whether it's the good luck you had the previous season turning sour, or the competition narrowing the gap, it only takes one little thing to cause a drop in performance.

Another theory is that with the glare of the media as intense as ever, the emotional toll of losing a title is greater. In this day and age there is no escaping the scrutiny of being a top-level stock car driver. No longer can drivers count on the offseason as a way to escape, a chance to put things in perspective and recharge their batteries.

When Edwards lost the 2011 title via a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart, he was asked about it endlessly.

The first time was immediately afterwards on pit road at Homestead, and then again a few weeks later at the awards ceremony in Las Vegas. This was followed by more questions during preseason testing, the annual media tour and the buildup to the Daytona 500.

No matter how hard he tried, Edwards couldn't dodge the elephant in the room last season. What was the psyche of him and his team? Were they able to turn the page and put the bitterness in the rearview mirror? These were all questions that Edwards was asked at every opportune moment -- just as Hamlin, Martin, Gordon and others dealt with previously.

Of course, when he started the year off slow the questions inevitably intensified.

"Thanks to a lot of you guys and a lot of the fans I have heard every possible reason for my lack of winning last year," Edwards said last month at a Daytona test session. "I have looked at a lot of it and what I have done is just dedicated myself to being the very best driver I can be."

However, this is the era we live in now. It is an age of social media where all athletes must deal with the disappointment and heartbreak of failing in a public manner where opinions are easily expressed. Those who can best adapt prosper, while those who can't languish.

It's one of the reasons Hamlin visited a sports psychologist, as he sought a way to help him cope with the frustrating way the 2010 season ended. And Hamlin was able to use his newfound perspective last year to rebound from a sub-par '11 campaign by winning five races and vaulting himself back into title contention.

Avoiding the runner-up curse now falls on the shoulders of Clint Bowyer.

After a breakthrough season where he won three races and finished second overall, Bowyer is hoping to use 2012 as a launching pad.

And to his credit he's entering 2013 with what seems to be the right mindset. His objectives for this season are fairly straightforward -- win some races and qualify for the Chase. And if everything goes right, hopefully end up in contention for his first Cup title.

One thing in his favor, unlike Edwards and Hamlin, Bowyer isn't dealing with the label of being called a "title favorite." This preconception is instead being applied to others like Brad Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin.

Instead, Bowyer comes into 2013 much like he did last season -- under the radar with others getting the bulk of the attention.

"I don't think we overachieved, because I think when you say overachieved it means you did more than you're capable of," Bowyer said during the Sprint Media Tour. "I just think we were beyond expectations and what people expected of us."

And if Bowyer so happens to fall short of his goals? Let's just chalk it up to the second-place curse claiming yet another victim.

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