"I told my wife, 'If I can't win this thing, I'm gonna be the best loser NASCAR has ever had,'" Carl Edwards said after losing the Ford 400, and with it the 2011 Sprint Cup, to Tony Stewart on Sunday. It was a typical good-guy Edwards statement, completely in line with the clean-cut public image he likes to maintain.
And for the most part, that's who Edwards is. Besides a couple of run-ins with Brad Keselowski, he's generally one of the more likable drivers in the Sprint Cup garage. But beyond that, he's also Jack Roush's top driver, a proven winner in Sprint Cup and head of the juggernaut that is the No. 60 Nationwide team. He worked his way to the top from humble roots in the Midwest, and now that he's at the top, the fitness buff makes sure to keep his body in impeccable shape.
Wait, this sounds familiar.
In 1988, a young Arkansan driver named Mark Martin joined Roush Racing's fledgling Winston Cup operation. In his time with Roush, he was generally one of the most respected drivers in the garage, a frequent championship contender in Cup and a perennial threat to win while moonlighting in the second-tier Busch Series. Martin stayed at the top thanks to a rigorous exercise regimen.
Martin was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998. If NASCAR ever updates the list, Edwards may very well find his name on it. Martin was Roush's top driver for a very long time, while a long-term contract for Edwards ensures that he will find himself in the same role. However, their greatest commonality—at least right now—has nothing to do with what they have done, but with what they haven't.
Neither driver is a Sprint Cup champion.
Martin set the bar for the NASCAR bridesmaid. He finished behind Dale Earnhardt in 1990 and 1994, Gordon in 1998, Stewart in 2002 and Johnson in 2009. Edwards has two runner-up finishes now, in 2008 and 2011. Granted, Martin is in his 50s and moving back to part-time racing; Edwards is still in his prime and has plenty of time to change that.
This year provided his best opportunity yet, as Edwards had by far the greatest consistency of any driver in the field. In fact, he would have been the champion if not for the Chase, scoring the most points over the course of the 36-race season. Not only that, it would have been his second title, the other coming in 2008, statistically the best season of his career.
Edwards and Martin share another interesting connection in that their respective top seasons were outdone by a Hendrick Motorsports driver in his prime. In 1998, Martin's seven wins and 26 top-10s were no match for Jeff Gordon, who took 13 victories and 28 top-10s of his own. In 2008, Edwards had a series-best nine wins, but Jimmie Johnson's seven victories were still good enough based on his superlative Chase performance.
For all we know, Edwards could break the recent trend of Chase runners-up faltering the following season and take the 2012 title. It's clear his team is consistent enough to put together the string of good finishes necessary.
But now Edwards has to start from scratch next season. He's got a good decade or so to figure out how to finish the deal under the Chase system, but one has to wonder if coming so close like he did this season will prove demoralizing for the next few years. If it does, Edwards might inherit Martin's least-appreciated title: "best driver to never win a championship."