Fantasy NASCAR: The Curse of the Runner-up Driver

by Brian Polking on January 23, 2012 @ 10:14:31 PDT

 


After winning a championship, it isn't uncommon to see a professional sports team struggle to repeat the following season. It is a trend known by many as the championship hangover, but recent history suggests that Tony Stewart isn't the driver that should be worried. Instead, last year's runner-up Carl Edwards could be the big name that ends up disappointing fantasy owners in 2012. It may seem unlikely given his impressive numbers last season, but there is a disturbing pattern that says otherwise.

The runner-up hangover began in 2008. The year before, Jeff Gordon had one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history. He won six races and recorded 21 top-five finishes and a series-leading 30 top-10s. Gordon also posted a 7.3 average finish. He ultimately finished second to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, but Gordon was the most consistent performer that season from start to finish.

Everyone assumed it would be more of the same in '08, but Gordon went winless and posted just 13 top-five finishes and 19 top-10s. His average finish nearly doubled to 14.5, and he failed to finish six times after having just a single DNF the year before. No, Gordon's 2008 season wasn't terrible, but it was a dramatic decline from his 2007 campaign.

Carl Edwards
A rough year ahead for Edwards?

Edwards already knows firsthand about the runner-up curse. His 2008 season was magical. He won a series-high nine races and added 19 top-five finishes and 27 top-10s. He ended the year with a 9.5 average finish, and if not for a wreck at Talladega in the Chase, he could have won the title. Edwards settled for second, but he had arrived. He was going to be a superstar. Then 2009 came. Like Gordon, Edwards went winless, and he saw his production decline across the board. He finished the year with a 15.1 average finish, seven top-five finishes and 14 top-10s. It was the worst season of his career to date.

While Edwards was struggling, Mark Martin was enjoying a resurgent season in 2009. He won five races - his most since 1998. He also logged 14 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s. Like Edwards the year before, a wreck at Talladega in the Chase proved to be the difference between a championship and a second-place finish, but Martin appeared to be back among the sport's elite. However, he went winless the following season, finishing with just seven top-five finishes and 11 top-10s. Sadly, Martin was more productive in a pair of 24-race schedules in 2007 and 2008 than he was in a full season in 2010.

The same season Martin was fading back to mediocrity, Denny Hamlin was having the best year of his career. He won eight times, doubling his career total at the time. He piled up 14 top-five finishes, 18 top-10s and a 12.9 average finish. Hamlin even took the point lead into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, only to watch an early mistake doom his title hopes. Last year, he never even had title hopes to doom. He won just one race and managed just five top-five finishes. His average finish ballooned to 16.0 - the worst of his career.

It brings us back to Edwards. He was hands down the best driver in 2011. Edwards led the series with 19 top-five finishes, 26 top-10s and a 9.3 average finish. No driver was even close to him in terms of consistency, but a ridiculous performance by Tony Stewart in the Chase relegated Edwards to another runner-up finish in the final standings. He now finds himself in a familiar position. He enters 2012 as the frontrunner to win the championship and expectations are high for Edwards in the fantasy community. Unfortunately, recent history suggests that meeting those expectations could be easier said than done.

While the theory behind the championship hangover makes sense, the runner-up hangover is justifiable as well. How deflating does it have to be to get so close to winning the biggest prize in NASCAR, only to come up just short? There's no doubt that Gordon, Edwards, Martin and Hamlin spent the entire offseason wondering what might have been had they done one or two things differently.

It is no coincidence that this trend started shortly after the introduction of the Chase format. Under the old point system, the driver with the dominant overall season would win the title. Now, the playoff contenders start from scratch, and one bad run during the final 10 races can ruin a year's worth of hard work.

Edwards seems like a can't-miss option this season. He drives for one of the top organizations in NASCAR, and he has been winning races since he first climbed behind the wheel at the Cup level. That being said, the numbers are undeniable. There is no such thing as a sure thing, even if the driver is coming off an incredible season. Time and time again, the runner-up from the previous season has experienced a sharp decline. There is no guarantee that the trend will continue, but after four straight seasons, owners are taking a bit of a risk betting that it will. Perhaps one last look at the numbers will be a little more convincing. 

Season Comparison from 2007 to 2011

 
Wins
Top-5s
Top-10s
Avg. Finish
Drivers in their runner-up season
5.8
17.4
24.4
10.54
Same drivers in the following season
0.25
7.5
14.5
15.23
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About Brian Polking

Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.

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