Matured Edwards finds perspective in rise back into racing's elite
Carl Edwards spent two years reinventing himself to rise again in racing
This season could evolve into Jimmie Johnson vs. Carl Edwards, part II
Edwards has matured, getting married and welcoming his daughter, Anne
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's Friday, and Sprint Cup's most recent points-paying winner is busy running a different kind of race. A few minutes late for a Ford photo shoot, Carl Edwards is to walk briskly across Daytona's Fan Zone, darting through crowds and jumping behind the fence to walk his way toward Victory Lane. The Blue Oval manufacturer's greatest hope to win Sunday's 500-miler, NASCAR's Super Bowl, Edwards must now bowl over fawning admirers like he's a linebacker playing in the NFL version two weeks earlier.
It doesn't happen. The second we cross the gate, into the only sport where fans and athletes can mingle so naturally, the driver stops to sign an autograph for a fan. Two, three, four come by and then all of a sudden a good two dozen people get pictures, hugs, virtually anything they ask for before his PR director almost forcefully has to push him forward to avoid getting stuck there 'til Sunday. For a moment, it almost works, until he spots two kids in wheelchairs out of the corner of his eye mere steps from that final destination.
So what happens? This photo shoot changes into a personal one where the kids, Shane and Zac, are in charge as Carl delivers the smile, handshake and gentle words of encouragement that frame into a lifetime Kodak moment for them. He walks into the shoot five minutes late, but in 30 seconds no one cares: a joke about sunglasses, a few handshakes and everyone's as jovial and relaxed as the man who's spent two years reinventing himself to rise back to the top of their list.
That Zen-like happiness bodes well for Edwards entering this year's 500, a race he's never won but a battle he needs to wage on Sunday to draw first blood. This 2011 NASCAR season begins as the battle of "Jimmie Johnson vs. The Field" -- Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Edwards, Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin have all come up short the last five years, Johnson fighting off all championship challengers like Mike Tyson in his heavyweight prime. Now, after two straight victories to end 2010, Edwards' name has come up on the title card again, a trendy pick to be Johnson's toughest adversary ... and what better place to land the first punch than the Great American Race, right?
"It's really important to come out of here with something good, just because the morale in our shop, everybody is in a good mood right now at the No. 99 team," he said. "I'm having fun, [crew chief] Bob Osborne's having fun. It would be really, really cool to come out of here and just continue this momentum."
That's something Edwards never used to believe in, a week-by-week mentality that kept him on edge and in contention throughout a 2008 season where he won nine times, coming within 68 points of toppling Johnson while establishing himself among the sport's elite.
"I could have beat him, but I wrecked at Talladega, broke a part at Charlotte, and I look back and go, 'All I had to do is just finish 15th in both those races and I would have won the championship.'" he said. "What Jimmie does is somehow, him and Chad [Knaus] are immune to that pressure. They just do a good job of really making it look like other people mess up all the time. Which we don't! They just never mess up."
It's easy to gain that perspective two years later. In the short-term, back then came an ugly, 2009 mental hangover, typical of the second-place opponents knocked down during the Johnson era: No wins, seven top-5 finishes and just 164 laps led en route to 11th in the points. By the first 15 races of 2010, the team was on a 51-race winless streak, had led just once all season for two laps and stood precariously on the bubble of missing the Chase.
"The low point was sitting backwards in the dirt at Sonoma," Edwards said of a 29th-place finish the following week. "Two laps to go, we got spun out and I thought, 'This is over.' We're not going to make the Chase, we're not going to win a race. It was bad."
So rough that Edwards and Osborne, one of the longest-tenured crew chief pairs on the circuit (they've spent parts of seven seasons together) seemed headed toward a devastating divorce they didn't want. With Jack Roush making changes to struggling teammate Kenseth's squad, replacing his crew chief not once but twice, both Edwards and Osborne knew their backs were against the wall. What happened now would be a make-or-break upcoming stretch, one that could have left them down for the count.
"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want," he said of fighting his way back from the brink. "I learned to focus on my performance, that's really all you can do. The results are going to be whatever they're going to be."
The turnaround was barely noticeable at first, a sixth at Daytona giving them breathing room in the points. A round of new engineering simulations followed -- a noticeable gain in setups for Roush Fenway Racing across the board -- that sparked a dozen straight finishes of 12th or better, launching the No. 99 into the playoffs full steam before mechanical failure at Fontana derailed their chances. Even still, the final two races became a thing of beauty, 283 laps led in those two straight victories launching a charge to fourth in points and creating the aura his team was back on the rise. Suddenly, Daytona becomes the benchmark again, a rubber stamp of sorts as to whether the No. 48 and No. 99 cars can duel.
"It's beyond the comeback that I expected or it's really beyond what I hoped for," he said. "The end of the season crescendoed into dominance."