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The Best Runner-Up

Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Two is a lonely number in NASCAR. Photo: Getty Images

The tiebreaker for the 2011 Sprint Cup champion was the number of race wins.  Naturally, for Carl Edwards and his seven second-place results, he finished the tiebreaker in second.

While champion Tony Stewart amounted five wins in the Chase, he also only came away with nine top-fives and 19 top-10s (just over half, for those of you non-math majors) in 36 races.

Edwards, meanwhile, amassed 19 top-fives (again, over half of the races) and 26 top-10s.  Those numbers haven't been matched by anyone since Edwards went 19 and 27 in 2008.  Care to guess where he finished that year?

Second.

He said on ESPN after the Homestead-Miami finale that he told his wife the night before if he didn't win, he'd try to be the best runner-up the sport has ever had.  Ironically, that seems to be the direction Carl has headed with his career.

He won nine races in the 2008 and finished second in the standings.  This year, he won just one and also finished second.

This year alone, he finished second at the Daytona 500, Bristol's Jeff Byrd 500, Darlington's Showtime Southern 500, and Richmond's Wonderful Pistachio's 500.  He then finished second consecutively at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami to close out the season in...second place.

He finished second on big tracks, little tracks, tight tracks, wide tracks and even newly-configured tracks (like Phoenix).

He also finished third in four other races, including the road course of Infineon Raceway.  Of course, he picked up a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but his single win is little consolation for a guy that's seemingly gotten used to taking home consolation prizes.

Aside from the results on the track, Carl Edwards proved he was a good fit for the role by his demeanor.  I've always believed that the measure of a man (and woman of course) isn't how he handles his finest hour, it's how he handles his lowest hour.  It's easy enough to hold your head up and shake hands with your competitors after you've won, but it's much harder to stomach your pride and do the same after they've ripped your heart out.

Winning is easy.  Losing is not.

Defeat is something we all have to face at some point in our lives.  For me, it was junior year of high school, when I played hockey for the Hanover (N.H.).

Playing in the semi-finals against Manchester Memorial, we gave up a breakaway in overtime.  Their player went in and shot the puck off the post, it fluttered across the goal line to the other post and came to rest outside the net, where our goalie covered it up.  After 30 seconds, an irresponsible ref decided (inexplicably) it had gone in the goal and Memorial had won the game.

Video shows it didn't go in.  All the Memorial parents and fans standing behind the goal can be seen waving no goal. The "goal scorer" can be seen taking his stick out the air in disappointment as soon as he realized his shot hadn't gone in.  The other ref can even be seen wandering over to the faceoff dot under the presumption that he was going to drop the puck for play to continue.  It was not a goal.

Instead of getting angry and yelling at the refs, our coach, Dick Dodds, told us to line up and shake the other team's hands.  Afterward, as we tried to cope with the consequences in the locker room, he told us he'd never been prouder of the way a team handled adversity on the ice (he's coached at Hanover since the 1980s) and that sometimes things just don't go your way.

That was the day I learned to lose.

I saw a similar resolve from Carl Edwards as the Chase came to an end.  While Stewart threw verbal darts at him, his mother and just about anyone else he could think of in the No. 99 camp, Edwards remained level-headed.

"Cousin" Carl was the first to greet Stewart after the No. 14 beat him in Texas and, again, was one of the first in the procession after Stewart again edged him out at Homestead to take the championship two weeks later.  Before he discussed being the best runner-up he could, he said on ESPN that Stewart did a great job and flat out beat him for the championship.

In today's garage with drivers saying this at a reporter or saying that about a competitor, I can't think of anyone else that would have shown the humility Edwards did.  It's unique to see that sort of respect after losing the championship in such heart-breaking fashion to someone, especially after his opponent had been so vocal toward him.

It's easy for us tongue-and-cheek pundits to joke that he's so good at it because he's so used to it.  It's a lot harder when you're actually the one finishing as such.  It's frustrating, it's disappointing and it's flat out angering.

Think of all the animosity Red Sox fans used to hurl at the Yankees before 2004.  It was years of pent-up disgruntlement for continuously playing second fiddle to the hated rival.  After two dominating seasons (2008 and 2011), it would have been easy for Edwards to start quacking like the sponsor on his car, but he didn't.

Hopefully, we can all take away a lesson from Carl Edwards in learning to remain classy in the face of defeat.  Hopefully, for his sake, it won't be a feeling he has to fight through again anytime soon.