Edwards' maturation (cont.)
It's Saturday at Daytona, and Edwards is working toward keeping the momentum going off the track: holding court with hundreds of fans in front of his hauler. Playing the role of host as well as athlete, he's entertaining the crowd with jokes and an outgoing personality that's just as suited for TV as sliding behind the wheel: he's already completed a successful stint as Chase analyst for ESPN, his what-you-see-is-what-you-get personality appealing to the masses.
Of course, this crowd hasn't always been behind him, as 2010 packaged within it some serious challenges to his popularity. A penchant for what he felt was deserved on-track retaliation flared up in not one, but two incidents with Brad Keselowski in 2010. A scary flip of Keselowski that March was followed by a last-lap Gateway wreck in July, both incidents leaving him on probation not just with NASCAR, but also with a once-rabid fan base. In an era of driver safety, some felt those incidents stepped over the line even in the era of "Boys, Have At It."
But that's where the relative calm of Edwards' inner circle stepped in, especially in a drama-free last six months that include a second child on the way. Two-and-half years between title bids have been packaged with off-track maturity: a marriage to wife Kate, then daughter Anne last February, which have put life into a different perspective.
"The other thing I've learned is the people around you are the most important thing in your life," he said. "My wife is my best friend. I can talk to her about anything, and she supports me no matter what. If I never drove a race car again, or never won a race again or didn't make another dollar, she would love me the same way she does now. And that's a huge confidence booster for me, to know that I have someone like that. To know that no matter what happens at the racetrack, I've got a great home life. That's awesome."
Always close with family, Edwards' additions have formed the key within a tight inner circle he keeps around his hometown of Columbia, Mo., where he shies the spotlight and hangs with friends he's known his whole life. In a sport where drivers seemingly readjust their life around the hometown Mecca of Charlotte, Edwards now more than ever has rededicated himself to Missouri, able to escape the bright lights with a snap of the finger -- keeping himself mentally sharp without having to feel the pressure 24/7.
"Having good people like I have around me has helped me to stay confident," he says. "To stay focused and to believe in myself. That's key."
Sunday will dawn at Daytona, and Edwards will prepare to start the next chapter in his career, a first step toward making his mark in a contract year for Roush Fenway Racing (Edwards, like Harvick last year, won't make his decision until well into the 2011 season as performance will surely play a role in his future). The key to it all begins here; he's 0-for-6 in the 500, with just four top-5 finishes in 25 starts at Daytona and Talladega, but the hope is Ford's newer, more powerful FR9 engine holds the key inside two-car drafts everyone's trying to figure out. With cars losing half-a-second every time they choose to switch positions on-track, the Fords have shown an uncanny knack to resist the type of overheating when drafting that has dogged other rivals during Speedweeks -- including rival Johnson.
"We didn't know our engine would be suited to this type of racing," he claims. "But it seems to be. Matt Kenseth showed us we could push the entire time with the FR9. You still have to pull out and cool it; so that slows you down, but I don't think it slows you down as much as swapping."
The Fords will begin with a disadvantage, Edwards starting 22nd in the 43-car field while only two of the 11 Fusions qualified inside the top 20. The Duels were practice, but far from perfect as a weak finish between Edwards and teammate Greg Biffle left them plummeting out of contention. But for a man who's used to fighting an uphill battle, at peace more than ever these days with any circumstance, a midpack starting spot should be a minor obstacle once the green flag drops.
"I learned that even with the best effort and the most practice, you can still, due to circumstance, get split up and you can be screwed," he said. "You've got to really, really work together the best you can. That's the most important thing, to stay together.
"I don't let it keep me awake at night, thinking about winning it because [in plate racing] there's so much chance involved. This is one of those races where you just ... it's like the lottery. You just keep playing, keep playing ... eventually, you're going to win something."
Edwards smiles, turns away and finishes the interview. He's got a wife and daughter to see, a few more fans to sign for before the day begins while Johnson-Edwards: Part II could draw ever closer.
But that's when you realize, the second the green flag drops on the 500 Edwards finds himself with the most distinct advantage of all. The gift of family, persistence, and maturity has put him back in a position in life where's he's already won.
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