Cory Mccartney
Friday March 30th, 2012

Like Denny Hamlin last year, and Mark Martin the season before that, Carl Edwards had been there -- and he swore he'd learned from it.

The second-place hangover, though, has been hard to escape.

"We've lived that. It's really painful," Edwards said back in January.

After narrowly missing out on a title in 2008, Edwards struggled to bounce back the following season, finishing 11th -- and he's not the first to fall victim to that curse. Martin nearly won the championship in 2009 and had his own frustrations in '10, coming in 13th, while Hamlin faded to ninth in '11 after finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in '10. In fact, in the last five seasons, only one runner-up has even finished among the top five the following year.

"I hope that the experience that we had before in 2009 will keep us from doing it again," Edwards said. "But this sport is tough. Your success last year does not guarantee you anything right now. That's just the way this sport is."

Five races into the season, it would seem history is repeating itself. Edwards is currently 12th, up from 15th a week ago, and it's a perilous spot; just twice since 1975 has the eventual champion been as low or lower than Edwards is now (Jimmie Johnson was 13th in '08; Tony Stewart sat 12th in '02).

While Roush Fenway Racing is finding success early on -- Greg Biffle has the points lead and Matt Kenseth is sixth with a win at Daytona and a second-place under his belt -- Edwards hasn't been able to duplicate the consistency that's proven his trademark. He has yet to string together consecutive top-10 finishes, something he did 10 times a year ago, and he didn't led a lap in the season's opening month.

But amid those struggles, there have been signs that the No. 99 crew is on the verge of putting it all together.

A fifth-place finish in Sunday's rain-shortened race at Fontana's Auto Club Speedway was his second in the last three races -- he was also fifth at Las Vegas -- and in those two events his percentage of laps run among the top 15 has been 100 percent (Fontana) and 78.7 percent (Vegas).

"This was the kind of race we needed," Edwards said of his California run. "We needed to come and battle, get the car working right. ... This was a great day for us. We're moving back up in the points, which is huge. We want to be leading the standings when the Chase starts."

But building momentum over these next few weeks could prove difficult. Edwards has three career wins on the six tracks leading up to the All-Star Race -- Martinsville, Texas, Kansas, Richmond, Talladega and Darlington -- and they've all come at Texas, with the last one coming four years ago. Complicating matters, four of those tracks rank among his worst in terms of average finish: Talladega (20.3), Martinsville (16.3), Richmond (15.7) and Texas (15.5).

Edwards has shown improvement at Martinsville, the site of Sunday's race. While you have to go back to the fall of '08 to find his only top-five in 15 career starts -- and he has 10 finishes outside of the top 10-- he has compiled a pole and three top-10s in the last four events there. Edwards was ninth at the Paper Clip last fall, and he'll be behind the wheel of the same car this weekend.

"We're going to Martinsville to put a Ford in Victory Lane," Edwards said. "We got a top-10 finish the last time we were there, and as an organization we've put a lot of focus on our short-track program. We've got the best cars we've ever had."

A win, or at least another strong run, could go a long way toward quieting the chatter. But three years removed from his own hangover, Edwards hasn't made it any easier on himself in trying to avoid another painful lesson.

Here are four more drivers to watch this week at NASCAR's oldest track, including the Racing Fan's pick to take the checkered flag.

Denny Hamlin

An ill-timed pit stop cost him a second-place finish at Fontana, but luckily for Hamlin, a return to Martinsville could help to wipe away those frustrations in a hurry. The Virginia native boasts four wins on the track in 19 starts, including three straight in 2009-10, and he's finished outside the top five just once in the last six years. Plus, he's led in nine of the last 11 races and has more points in the track's last 10 events than anyone else. Three straight finishes outside the top 10 cost him the points lead this year, but look for Hamlin to bounce back with his second win of the season, earning him yet another Martinsville Grandfather Clock.

Jeff Gordon

Whether he's going by the nickname Wonder Boy or Big Daddy, Gordon knows no better track than Martinsville. His seven career wins on the Paper Clip are the most of any active driver and rank third all time behind Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11). Yes, that last victory came nearly seven years ago, but Gordon remains a force despite that wins drought, finishing in the top five in 15 out of his last 18 starts. Sitting 25th in the points, Gordon badly needs a boost. "We just need to have a 'complete' race, and then another one, and then another one," he said. "We have a team capable of stringing together a lot of good finishes."

Jimmie Johnson

The No. 48 crew has clearly found its rhythm. Johnson's rattled off four straight top-10 finishes, and in light of his penalty reversal, has jumped up to ninth in the standings. It's a good bet he'll stay hot this weekend. J.J.'s 5.4 average finish is the best in NASCAR history among drivers with at least five career starts at Martinsville and his six wins there are second only to Gordon among the current field. "It's been a very good track for me," Johnson said. "I certainly want to get back to my winning ways there. But at a minimum, we always end up with a real strong finish."

Kevin Harvick

He dashed the hopes of Junior Nation when he passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win this race a year ago, adding to The Closer's late-race mystique. His career numbers aren't great there. He carries a 15.9 average finish, which ranks 14th, but he's become a force of late, finishing third, first and fourth in his last three starts and has led in four straight races. "It's a racetrack we feel confident at," Harvick said. "All of our cars have run well there in the past. It's really keeping yourself out of trouble and getting to the end, and hopefully by the end of the day you're in position to do something in the top-five."

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