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The director yells "Action!" and the confident young star makes his entrance. Dressed in a black suit and dark gray tie, Carl Edwards strides into a scene for an episode of the Fox action hit 24, jaw clenched, leading a team of briefcase-carrying Homeland Security officers who commandeer a Counter Terrorist Unit office. All eyes on the set at the Chatsworth, Calif., studio are on Edwards, the NASCAR driver turned actor for a day. Even Kiefer Sutherland, the star of the series, who is sitting offstage fiddling with his cellphone and a pack of smokes, leans forward in his chair and watches with interest.
Edwards has but a cameo role, yet as soon as the shot is complete it becomes clear, in part, why he is poised to become NASCAR's next big thing: Not only was he as commanding a presence in front of the camera as he is on the track, but he also charmed the cast and crew with his wholesome-as-milk Midwesterner personality and toothy smile.
"You're a natural," an impressed Sutherland tells Edwards. "I've got to come see you race.... You are the man!"
"You're one of the best extras we've had," says director Jon Cassar, as he pats Edwards on the back. "Actually, Carl, you're scary good."
Scary good. That's the description of Edwards that was most often heard around the Nextel Cup garage during last year's Chase for the Nextel Cup. In his first full season Edwards won four Cup races and finished third in the points standings. Though he struggled on the two road courses, Edwards ran as well as any other driver on the intermediate tracks, which in 2006 will host 17 of the 36 Nextel Cup races (box, page 68), including six of the 10 Chase events. A relentless charger, Edwards has the ability--rare even at the Cup level--to keep his car consistently fast even at the very edge of adhesion. Expect a six-car sprint to the title among Edwards, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, reigning champ Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, with the 26-year-old Edwards, in the red-and-white number 99 Ford, being SI's pick to hoist the Cup in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 19 (box, page 70). Over the final month of last season no driver was faster than Edwards, a Columbia, Mo., native who won two of the last four races and had a series-high average finish of 3.0 over that span.
"Tony Stewart, in my opinion, is the greatest racer of our time, but Carl is better at this stage in his career than Tony was," says Mark Martin, 21-year Cup driver and a Roush Racing teammate of Edwards's. "Every once in a while a guy comes along who just catches on and is fast right away. Carl is one of those guys."
"You can see Carl's intensity, his car control," says Johnson, who lost out to Edwards on a thrilling final-lap dash at Atlanta Motor Speedway last March as Edwards grabbed his first Cup victory. "This guy is our next superstar."
While Edwards was the surprise of 2005--entering the season he had made only 13 stock car starts on pavement--the biggest disappointment was Gordon, the four-time Cup titlist and the last driver to repeat as champion, in 1998. After Gordon failed to qualify for the Chase last fall, he and longtime crew chief Robbie Loomis parted ways, and 26-year-old Steve Letarte moved to the top of Gordon's pit box. A former intern at Hendrick Motorsports whose first job at the company, in 1995, was sweeping the parts-room floor, Letarte took the extraordinary step of tweaking the aerodynamics of the Chevy's design and essentially putting a new body on Gordon's car for a test session in October--a move that gave Gordon improved handling and three top three finishes in the last five races.
Gordon and 2005 Nextel champ Stewart are the heavy favorites to win Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500; Gordon won last year's 500, and Stewart dominated the Pepsi 400 at Daytona last July, leading 151 of the 160 laps. On Jan. 13, Stewart suffered bruised ribs when he flipped a sprint car in Tulsa, but three weeks later he was smiling every time he eased out of his Chevy during a test session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. According to several team members, Stewart is invigorated by the arrival of new teammates Denny Hamlin, 25, and J.J. Yeley, 29. One reason is that Stewart and former teammate Bobby Labonte, who left Joe Gibbs Racing in the off-season to drive for Petty Enterprises, raced radically different setups-- Stewart likes an extremely loose car, while Labonte prefers a tight one--and thus the two rarely shared information. The new teammates will drive a similar setup to Stewart's.
"The young guys keep us on our toes," says Ronny Crooks, the shock specialist on the number 20 team. "It's never easy to repeat in our sport, but we're a confident team. Real confident, actually." The young guys Crooks was speaking of were Hamlin and Yeley, but he just as easily could have been referring to Edwards--the driver that Gordon, Stewart and the rest of the Nextel field will have to watch out for.