The Dreaded C-Word

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Football fans will recall the Buffalo Bills of the early nineties. The Bills went to four straight Super Bowls following each season from 1990 through the 1993 season – and lost every one of them. While fans of most franchises would kill to go to multiple Super Bowls, football fans in upstate New York came to dread the Big Game after the annual embarrassment the Bills suffered. When the Bills failed to qualify for the playoffs following the 1994 season, cynical Bills fans drew a sigh of relief that they wouldn’t have to go through another monumental disappointment. The problem with that was that the Bills haven’t sniffed another Super Bowl since. What’s the old saying of watching out what you ask for?

As good as those Bills were, they laid an egg when it came to winning championships. There were many Hall of Fame players and coaches on those Bills teams of the early nineties. They posted gaudy numbers and statistics. No other team in NFL history has ever been to four straight Super Bowls. Yet, that team has the burden of being labeled with the “C-Word” – chokers.

Of all the slang terminology used in sports, there may not be a moniker so damaging as the word “choke”. In sports, to choke, basically means that an individual or team failed to win, when heavily favored to win; or had squandered a big lead. Choking can occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a team or individual becomes complacent and thinks that a total effort is not needed. Other times, a choke can occur due to mounting pressure that causes the team or individual to wilt or crumble. The fear of screwing up is a powerful force. Whatever the case, it’s not an enviable label for an athlete.

The Buffalo Bills are a good example of a team that choked. But individual athletes that have choked seem to be more memorable. Golfer Rory McIlroy is known for choking away the 2011 Masters. He began the day with a four stroke lead, but on the tenth hole – everything went terribly wrong on his way to shooting an 80 and finishing fifteenth. Bill Buckner will forever be remembered for allowing a routine ground ball to go through his legs on a pivotal play in the 1986 World Series, as his Boston Red Sox eventually lost to the New York Mets. To this day, Buckner is vilified in Bean Town.

In fact, the name Buckner is now synonymous with some of sport’s biggest chokes. Some have compared JR Hildebrand hitting the Turn Four wall on the last lap of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 as a Buckner moment. There are those who have wondered if we may be witnessing another Buckner moment, or at least a Buffalo Bills situation, as we watch Will Power heading into a third straight season finale with a chance to win the IndyCar title. For the past two seasons, Power has come away empty-handed. This latest chapter has yet to be written.

Heading into Sunday’s race in Baltimore, Power held a comfortable thirty-seven point lead over his closest competitor – Ryan Hunter-Reay. All of the momentum was with Power. He was coming off his third straight podium finish. Hunter-Reay, in the meantime, had finished seventh, twenty-fourth and eighteenth in those same races. Power was starting on the pole at Baltimore, while Hunter-Reay had suffered another stroke of bad luck in qualifying. With Power starting first on a track he dominated a year earlier, many thought that Power might actually clinch the title on Sunday. No one would have thought that there was a realistic shot that things would work out as they did.

It’s not that Power actually choked on Sunday – he finished sixth. But given the history of Power letting the past two championships slip away at the end of each season, skeptics and cynics are already slapping the “C-Word” label on him. Is that fair or accurate? No, not really – but that is the perception with a lot of fans, and we’ve all heard that perception is reality.

But when Power reeled off three straight victories in April, those same people that are now taking joy in Power’s recent struggles – were ready to hand him the Astor Challenge Trophy before this year’s running of the Indianapolis 500. Although I try to not get too excited or pessimistic when things are either very good or really bad – I would have found it hard to believe it had you told me his victory in São Paulo on April 29th might be his last of the season. Hunter-Reay had three straight wins of his own this summer before cooling off – but he had his biggest on Sunday, when he needed it the most. Digging deep and delivering the goods when your back is against the wall, is not only a cliché festival – it’s the sign of a champion.

Although the feel-good story and all of the momentum is now on Ryan Hunter-Reay’s side – let’s remember that it is still Will Power that holds a seventeen point lead. All kinds of scenarios have been worked out as to who needs to do what to win the championship. Essentially, Power has to finish third or worse and Hunter-Reay has to win for Hunter-Reay to come away with this year’s trophy. Results like what we saw in Baltimore – a track that is best suited to Power’s driving style – will crown Hunter-Reay the champion. But if neither driver wins, then the scenario gets more complicated.

The wild-card in all of this is the next race – a five-hundred mile race on a two-mile oval. Two of Hunter-Reay’s victories this season came on ovals. Power doesn’t necessarily struggle on ovals, but suffice it to say they are not his strength. He has only one oval win on his resume – one of the abbreviated Texas Twins from 2011 – that some say is deserving of an asterisk. Anything can happen at Fontana, which is great for fans but nerve-racking for competitors going for a championship.

Power is probably feeling the pressure which will surely grow by next Saturday night. But for all the drivers in the field, pressure is normal. There is pressure every time anyone crawls into the cockpit. That’s why we don’t all do it. Personally, I don’t think the pressure will get to Power. Other factors besides caving in to pressure have come into play in the past two championships.

Will Power may not win the championship, but I don’t think it will be because he couldn’t handle it. But if he doesn’t win, look for comparisons to Bill Buckner, the Buffalo Bills, the phrase “forever a bridesmaid” and the dreaded “C-Word” to all be applied to Will Power in the days and weeks that follow. Would I agree with that assessment and consider Power a choker if he fails to win the championship? Not for a minute. But the dreaded C-Word will come up. And as unfair as that all sounds, remember – perception is reality.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “The Dreaded C-Word”

  1. Grew up suffering thru the Bills poor management and lousy QBs. In Upstate NY the saying is BILLS = Boy I Love Losing Superbowls.

    I don’t see Will as choking, he has not thrown away races with careless driving blunders. However, he has not had the total non-oval dominance he has shown in previous years either.

  2. Ugh… George… as a lifelong Bills fan and Upstate New Yorker you’re killing me. I spent several years and thousands of dollars on the therapy to overcome those superbowl losses.

    Seriously though, I don’t think Power could avoid the “C” word if this one slips away. But just like the great underachieving Atlanta Braves teams of the 90’s, if finally he wins one all is forgotten.

    PS- I’m embarrassed to admit I had to google “Astor Challenge Trophy”. With the tragedy of Las Vegas, I had forgotten all about the trophy change last year.

  3. Am I forgetting something? Wasn’t Power buried after Toronto last year by like 80 points and was still trailing in the standings in Las Vegas when he was taken out in an incident not of his making?

    I guess you could have called the St Louis Cardinals chokers if they missed the 2011 playoffs by a game, or if they were beat 1-0 by the Phillies in game 5, or if they quit when trailing in the 9th inning of game 6 or the 10th inning of game 6. Or the beginning of game 7.

    • If the Cards lost like that they WOULD be chokers.

      • I guess there are different interpretations of Chokers, you just let the Braves, Phillies, Brewers, and Rangers off the hook.

        • The Braves teams of the mid to late 90’s were huge chokers, but I don’t get what your point is about the Brewers, Phillies and Rangers except to assume that you don’t recognize a choke. They just got beat. As for Will Power, NOT winning this year makes him a CHOKER!

  4. Just eatch the post race interview from Baltimore and you can see the stress already getting to him. Watch the pre race interview from two years ago and compare it to Dario’s and you could tell the championship was already decided. Power will tell me all I need to know when he gives his interview pre race. Lucky for him if RHR can’t handle it either Power wins. Unlucky for Power RHR seems like the coolest cat in the room these days.

  5. I am pretty excited about Ryan Hunter-Reay and his momentum going into this last race. a 500-miler, too!! WIth that said, I like Will Power and I know he is a top of the list driver, however this is a TEAM sport and if Will were to lose then Cendric gets some of the blame as well. A bad pit stop can knock you out of a good finish as anything else. That is also something that keeps us all on the edge
    as fans, the performance of the pit crews. Good luck to all.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    He’ll probably be called a choker if he doesn’t win the title, but I don’t think he’ll have earned it. There are so many things beyond a driver’s control in racing that the term should be used very sparingly, if at all.
    I’ll listen to arguments for “chokes” when drivers leading a championship or big race inexplicably wreck themselves, but that’s about it. I don’t see that with Power.

    While his mistake at Homestead was bad, his loss in 2010 seemed almost inevitable once the series began its final 4 races, all on large ovals where Power’s racecraft was not yet in the same galaxy as Franchitti’s.

    Last year, Power erased season second-half deficits of 55 and 62 points to lead Dario going into Kentucky, only to be taken out through no fault of his own there and at Las Vegas.

    This year, he’s made his share of mistakes, but lost each of the last 3 races because of pit issues and was far from lucky at Indy, Toronto, Detroit, and St. Pete.

  7. I am a Will Power fan but I truly belive that Hunter-Reay will win the championship due to the fact that he is a better oval track driiver than Will, as he will show at Fontana, and he appears to be more “hungry” for the title at this time. In the past, Will has had some unfortunate pit stop errors which he will need to eliminate at Fontana in order to stay in contention for the title. If Will loses the title to Hunter-Reay he will not be considered a “choker”. He will simply have lost to someone who, for various reasons, was able to persevere and conquer.

  8. Savage Henry Says:

    I hope that this championship comes down to the stripe on Lap 250. I really hope that it doesn’t end up like Homestead a couple years ago where nobody else in the field showed up to race and the title contenders lapped the field of disinterested bystanders. That was embarrassing. I understand that people want to stay out of the way, but jeez. I hope that they put up some major prize money at Fontana as an incentive for the whole field to try to win it.

    I don’t see how anybody could tag Power with the choker label this year. He had bad luck in the pits in Mid-Ohio and Sonoma that cost him probably easy wins. Then his team made a tough call in a dry-wet-dry race in Baltimore. If that rain had held on for another couple more minutes, the result could have been much different. If he puts it in the wall by himself again at Fontana that could raise some eyebrows, but he could very easily had this title wrapped up already.

  9. If Power loses, I would not label him a choker. That said, I believe he will win–or at least finish the race ahead of RHR, which will give him the championship. Penske is simply too strong on 500-mile ovals.

  10. I actually think the winner of the championship this year is going to be…Honda. As in, Honda’s high speed excellence is going to shine through at Fontana, thereby not allowing RHR to outscore Power by enough to win the title. Should Hondas go 1-2, like they did at Indy (and I think they will, if not even sweep the top-3 or 4), RHR’s point ceiling for the night will be 35 for 3rd place. At that point, Power would only have to finish in the top-11 to clinch, which, barring pit issues or getting taken out in somebody else’s wreck, should be well within Will’s…well…Power. 17 points is just too much to overcome, unless things go spectacularly poorly for Power.

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