For nearly a decade, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has been hit with what has become known as the runner-up jinx. Simply put, the driver who finishes second in the point standings experiences a significant drop-off in performance the following year. The past five runner-ups have combined for only one victory the season after their second-place showing, and none of them finished better than seventh in the standings. Over the past seven years, three runner-ups failed to even make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship the following season.
Denny Hamlin was a victim of the jinx in 2011. After losing the 2010 title to Jimmie Johnson in the season's final race, Hamlin posted only five top-five finishes in 2011 (a career low) and fell all the way to ninth in the final standings. A year later, when asked about the jinx, Hamlin said in all seriousness, "I think there's something to it. There has to be. It's not just random numbers that you see."
If the jinx does indeed exist, then it is currently on the head of Clint Bowyer, who topped Jimmie Johnson by one point last season to finish second in the final standings behind champion Brad Keselowski. But Bowyer-- who had the best season of his career in 2012 with three victories and 23 top-10 finishes in his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing -- brushed aside any superstitious talk when asked about the jinx earlier this year.
"People call it a jinx. Whatever," Bowyer said. "We had nothing to be ashamed of to finish in second place. There was just one great thing after another happening at MWR last year. We won races with a team built from scratch over the off-season. We went into a team that had never been proven before and went out and proved a big point. We finished second in the points and truly had only one bad weekend over the whole year. I'll take that any day. I will sign up for that right now."
In many ways, Bowyer has already broken the jinx streak this year. He is second in the points standings to Johnson with seven top-five finishes and 11 top-10s. Since dropping out with an engine failure at Fontana, Calif., on March 24, Bowyer has not finished worse than 18th, a stretch of 13 consecutive races. He has an average finish of 6.9 over the past seven races, with three consecutive top-fives.
The one thing that is missing --- the only area where the jinx appears to be rearing its ugly head --- is a victory. Despite his lofty position in the standings, Bowyer remains winless this season. Even MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr. has a victory, and he had gone 218 races without one.
Bowyer might not call it a jinx, but he admitted last week that his failure to visit Victory Lane this season is starting to bother him. "I need to get some (wins)," he said. "It's starting to get serious. I'm not going to lie. It's starting to be enough that you are paying attention.
"You just have to keep digging and keep trying. You have to keep putting yourself in these situations. We've had top-fives and fast race cars. What else can you do? You just have to keep putting yourself in that situation and eventually it will pay off. But, yes, it's certainly being noticed."
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- One of the few weak spots for Johnson in recent years has been his performance on the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. So far this season he has swept the two Daytona races and finished fifth at Talladega. It will take more than his recent problems with restarts to prevent him from capturing his sixth Cup championship.
2. Clint Bowyer (2nd) --His fourth-place finish at Daytona was his seventh top-five of the season and his 11th top-10. The only driver who has been better in both categories is Johnson. Now Bowyer needs to find his way to Victory Lane.
3. Kevin Harvick (3rd) -- After finishing 42nd and 40th in the first two restrictor-plate races this season, Harvick motored to a third-place showing at Daytona for his eighth consecutive top-10. Had he finished as high as 25th in those first two plate races, he would currently be second in the point standings.
4. Matt Kenseth (4th) -- With his 33rd-place outing at Daytona, Kenseth now has as many finishes outside the top 30 as he has victories (four each). How weird has this season been for him? Well, Joey Logano, who is 15th in the point standings, actually has more top-fives than Kenseth (5)
5. Kyle Busch (6th) -- Busch finished 12th at Daytona, though it easily could have been higher. The important thing is that it appears he has broken out of the slump that saw him fail to crack the top 20 four times in a five-race span earlier this season.
6. Carl Edwards (5th) -- After being one of the most consistent drivers all season, Edwards has now posted two consecutive finishes in the 20s, and he has managed only two top-10s in the past seven races. He will make the Chase, but now it looks like he might not do much in it.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (9th) -- There is no question that he is currently one of the 10 best drivers in Sprint Cup racing. But the problem for his legion of fans is that he is a lot closer to being 10th than to being the best. He's still winless this season and has only one top-five finish since March.
8. Tony Stewart (unranked) -- Just as we expected, Stewart excelled at Daytona, posting a runner-up finish for his fourth top-five in the past six races. He might not end up being a serious contender for the championship this season, but he certainly is capable of winning some more races.
9. Greg Biffle (7th) -- He continues to be strangely inconsistent this season. He went six races without a top-10 finish, then posted three top-10s in a row (including a victory at Michigan), and has now finished 17th and 34th in the past two races.
10. Kurt Busch (unranked) -- Look who's making his first appearance in the Power Rankings this year. For all of his flaws -- and there are plenty of them -- Busch has always been an extremely talented driver. He has been proving it lately by taking the single-car Furniture Row Racing team to three consecutive top-10 finishes and is up to ninth-place in the point standings.