Is There Really a Second-Place Curse?

One of the commentators after the final race in Homestead mentioned that Jimmie Johnson should be happy he finished in third because it allows him to avoid the “dreaded second-place curse”.
Anytime someone says something like that, it makes me wonder whether there really is a curse, or whether that person had just been talking to Carl Edwards.  So I analyzed a little data and guess what… there really IS a second place curse.

I used data from the last twelve years — from, bless them!  After trying a couple of different approaches to making the data easy to visualize, I ended up with something a little more complicated than I would have liked.

Bear with me – it’s not as yucky as it looks.  I have plotted on the horizontal axis the place in which a driver finished in the first year listed, which we’ll call “X”.  I then calculated the change in positions of the same driver the next year (X+1) and plotted that on the vertical scale.  So the first set of data has X = 2000 and X+1=2001.

  • A positive number on the vertical axis means that the driver finished better by that many places in the following year. For example, +5 means that the driver finished five places better the next year than they finished the year before.
  • A negative number on the vertical axis means they finished worse the next year. A -5 means they moved down five spots in the final standings.

I went through and removed any special cases — like Mark Martin running full time one year, but not the next, Busch brothers missing races (that’s a different kinds of curse), people retiring, etc.  The graph below summarizes the top 16 finishing places and the change in final standing over the last twelve years.

There’s an obvious statistical implication:  If you finish second, for example, you have only one place to move up and forty one places to move down.  You’re either going to win the championship next year, become second again, or move down.  The probability is that you’re going to finish worse than second.

To look at the data in a slightly different way, I plotted it the same way they plot the daily activity of the the stock market:  the symbol shows you the average.  One line extends up to the maximum increase in position and one line extends down to the largest drop in position.


The first-place curse

In fact, if we’re going to call dropping in the standings a “curse”, then there is clearly a first-place curse that affects everyone except Jimmie Johnson.  Mose drivers who win the championship one year inevitably finish worse the next year.  When I say ‘drop in points’, it’s not a huge drop:  nine places was the most anyone who finished first dropped.

The average first time finisher fell almost five positions.  That’s including four consecutive ‘0’s due to Jimmie Johnson.  If we exclude Jimmie just because what he did was really unprecedented (and unlikely to be duplicated), the average first-place finisher falls almost seven positions the next year – about the the same as the second-place driver.

The second-place curse

Second place shows a very similar story, only worse.  There is only one case in twelve years in which the second place finisher one year won the championship the next year.  That was Jimmie Johnson.  Whoops – Rick pointed out my mistake.  It was 2001 -2o02 and the driver was Tony Stewart!  On average (including Jimmie), the second place finisher finishes about seven positions lower the next year.

The three biggest drops in point standings (-15, -13, -11, -9 and -7) are due to Martin, Edwards, Biffle, Edwards and Hamlin.  There are no extenuating circumstances like crew chief changes, owner changes, etc. on which to blame the drops.  Four out of five of those drivers were all driving for Roush at the time… maybe there’s a Roush curse?

The bad news for Jimmie Johnson… and everyone else who made the chase

Here’s the bad news for Jimmie:  Yes, he avoided the second-place curse; however, no third-place driver has gone on to finish first or second the next year.  The best they’ve done was to match their third-place finish.

Yep, perhaps there’s a third-place curse as well, as third-place drivers finish an average of three places lower the following year.

In fact, you don’t find a finishing position in which there is an average probability of bettering your finish until 7th place.  On the graph above, you can see that the majority of finishes were improvements, although without one -11 change, it would be a much more positive number.  After that, it’s an oscillation between slightly better and slightly worse.

A caveat of this data analysis is that the Chase sort of messed things up going out past 10 because a driver in the Chase can’t finish lower than 10th, even if he misses races or otherwise would have fallen much lower without the Chase format.


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