Garrison Hearst. Dorsey Levens. Daunte Culpepper. Michael Vick. Troy Polamalu.
No, these aren’t obscure drivers from NASCAR’s past. They’re all football players, one-time superstars of the NFL who were chosen at one point to be the cover athlete of EA Sports’ Madden video game franchise.
And they all saw their careers go south following the honor.
It’s gotten so bad for the publisher that no matter what they tried – putting older players on the cover included – has seemed to break the dreaded Madden Curse. San Diego Chargers fans even successfully petitioned to get their star running back off the cover about a decade ago because they were so worried.
Is the curse real? It certainly seems so, which might make Carl Edwards a little nervous.
You see, there’s a new NASCAR game coming in September, and he’s the lucky dog that will grace the cover. Should he be worried? Luckily for him, there’s years of data to sift through and the news is largely good.
But first, a primer. NASCAR has been on PCs and consoles since 1994, when Jeff Gordon served as the cover athlete on Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing game. Over the years Papyrus continued to make games, culminating in its NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, lauded by most sim racers as the best game ever; it even served as the base for the uber-popular iRacing online simulator.
But Papyrus wasn’t the only game in town. EA started producing games in 1998 and produced one version a year through 2009. Then the license went to Eutechnyx, which produced from 2011-2015 before it was announced that Monster Games and Dusenberry Martin Racing would take over the production. For gaming aficionados, this was welcome news, as Monster played a large role in the popular NASCAR Heat and Dirt to Daytona games in the early 2000s. The new games will be titled NASCAR Heat Evolution.
Now, back to Edwards. He obviously wants a championship, and while the news isn’t great, it can be done by a driver on the cover of a game. Jeff Gordon won the 1998 championship by dominating the season – 13 wins, 26 top-5 finishes and seven poles – after being announced as EA’s NASCAR 98 cover. Bobby Labonte won the 2000 title with a consistent season and four wins after serving as co-cover athlete with Dale Jarrett (who had a good season too, with two wins, 24 top 10s and a fourth-place finish in the points).
Lastly, Jimmie Johnson won the 2006 title after sharing the cover of NASCAR 06 Total Team Control with Gordon. His 24 top 10s that season tie him for third-most by cover athletes.
Other solid performances? Dale Earnhardt was on the cover of the NASCAR 2000 game by EA, and he finished second to Labonte – a good season overall for cover athletes. Tony Stewart also finished second in points in 2001 after teaming up with EA for NASCAR 2001. Johnson shared the NASCAR Racing 2003 Season cover with Kevin Harvick and finished second. Harvick finished fifth. And Gordon finished third in both 2009 and 2015.
Edwards can, at the very least, look forward to some wins. Forget a moment that he drives for the hottest team on the circuit in Joe Gibbs Racing. Only five times through 32 games has the cover athlete failed to win – Rusty Wallace in 2002 (NASCAR Hear 2002), Ward Burton in 2003 (NASCAR Dirt to Daytona), Elliott Sadler in 2007 (NASCAR 07), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in 2013 (NASCAR the Game: Inside Line) and Stewart in 2014 (NASCAR 14). The cover athlete average 2.13 wins a season, something Edwards should easily eclipse.
Other averages to look at: 10.13 top 5s, 17.84 top 10s, 1.45 poles and just under three DNFs. If Edwards holds up to history, he can expect about a seventh- or eighth-place points finish, but in today’s NASCAR all he needs is one of those two wins to come in the final elimination round of the Chase and he’ll be guaranteed a fourth-place finish just as Gordon did last season.
Only four times has the cover athlete finished outside the top 20 in points – Harvick in 2002, Burton in 2003, Sadler in 2007 and Stewart in 2014. For Harvick, it was a sophomore slump. For Stewart, off-track issues caused him to miss three races. For Burton and Sadler, it was probably a case of jumping too soon to put a hot driver on the cover. Burton won two races in 2002, including the Daytona 500, but his breakout was an anomaly.
But Ward wasn’t the only Burton to have a poor showing after being on the cover. Brother Jeff had a stellar 2000 season with four wins and a third-place points finish, only to finish 10th in points when he was on the cover.
By and large, being on the cover of a NASCAR game is a good thing. Edwards should be proud to be picked and shouldn’t worry as the football players do. He’s already got two wins this season and is a legitimate championship contender. That won’t change overnight, and certainly not because of a video game.
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