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? Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 5, Chase race number 4. After hanging in the back of the pack for most of the Amp Energy 500, Edwards and Biffle charge up through the field. Blasting into Turn 3 with only 16 laps remaining, Edwards is in third place when he aggressively bangs the nose of his number 99 Ford into the rear of Biffle's number 16 Ford. Edwards is trying to bump-draft his teammate and give him an aerodynamic push, but their two cars aren't perfectly aligned and both drivers lose control. They hit the wall hard. Had Edwards wound up third instead of 29th, his actual finish, it would have meant another 89 points. The math is simple: If not for this wreck, Edwards likely would have won the 2008 Cup. "I made one serious mistake all season, and it really cost me," says Edwards. "I learned my lesson."
? Lowe's Motor Speedway, Charlotte, Oct. 9, two days before Chase race number 5. Four days after the wreck in Alabama, Edwards confronts Kevin Harvick, who had called him a "pansy" on national TV at 'Dega. The 6'1", 185-pound Edwards, the fittest and most muscular driver in NASCAR—he pals around with pro wrestler John Cena—angrily puts his big hands around Harvick's throat. The two men are quickly separated, but this moment of rage reveals a dark side of Edwards that belies the boy-next-door image that he and his sponsors have cultivated. It's a side that many of his competitors have seen, including his own teammates. In October 2007 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, after bumping and grinding on the track with his teammate Matt Kenseth, Edwards feigned throwing a haymaker at Kenseth's face after the race. Kenseth was visibly shaken. While the two drivers are still collegial at the track, they will never be mistaken for friends. "You never know what you're going to get from Carl," says Kurt Busch, who was Edwards's teammate in 2004 and '05. "Sometimes he's happy-go-lucky, and sometimes the devil horns come out. That makes him a bit of a wild card on the race track."
THE THREE-BEDROOM, two-bathroom house sits on a quiet, tree-lined street in a working-class neighborhood of Columbia. This is where Edwards was raised, and he still calls it home. "See this couch?" he says as he stands in the living room. "We had this the day I was brought home from the hospital. I'm not a guy who likes big changes. This is where I'm most comfortable."
In his five-year Cup career Edwards has won $31 million in prize money and made millions more in endorsements, but this house befits someone who just graduated college and is looking for his first job. The guest room hasn't been painted since 1992, and in Carl's basement bedroom there are mounds of clothes on the floor, piles of books by the fireplace, a guitar by the bed and a unicycle in the corner. Walk 20 paces from the bedroom, through a storage room filled with 10-year-old racing tires and notebooks from his days as a student at Missouri—they're filled with doodles of funky race cars—and you're in his two-stall garage. In his youth Edwards spent more time in here than at school. "This was Carl Edwards Motor Sports world headquarters," he says, laughing. "My dad and I worked on my dirt-modified cars in this garage. This is where it all started."
At age 18, after spending several years wrenching on cars with Carl Sr., who owned a Volkswagen garage and raced on Friday and Saturday nights at dirt tracks around the Midwest, Carl started racing at nearby Capital Speedway, a three-eighths-mile dirt track. By 20, while enrolled at Missouri (he's about a semester short of a degree in interdisciplinary studies), he had won two local titles and had begun hanging out at the St. Louis race shop of Mike Mittler, who owned a truck that he ran in the Craftsman Truck Series. Nearly every day, as Edwards performed odd jobs such as painting the truck and sweeping, he asked Mittler for a chance to drive. In June '02 Mittler finally caved. Edwards's first start was at Memphis Motorsports Park, where he finished 23rd. Two weeks later, at Kansas Speedway, he came in eighth—the first top 10 of the season for Mittler's team. Within a month, a representative from Roush Racing called Edwards, expressing interest in signing him.
That was his big break. Edwards went with Roush, and after spending the '03 and '04 seasons in the Truck Series—he won six races and had 22 top five finishes in 50 starts—he was elevated by owner Jack Roush to the Cup level during the '04 season. Though he had made fewer than five starts in a stock car on pavement, Edwards immediately flashed potential, with three top 10s in his first four starts. "Carl is a natural," Roush says. "Plus, he has that killer instinct that I just love."
Edwards especially flourishes in NASCAR's newly configured race car, which was rolled out full time in 2008. While most drivers complain that they can't get the car to turn through the corners because its back end slides so far up the track, Edwards relishes it because it reminds him of racing on the Missouri dirt. "This new car definitely favors Carl's driving style," says Bob Osborne, Edwards's crew chief. "We all believe Carl is ready to do big things."
EDWARDS IS doing a big thing right now: He's behind the controls of his Cessna Citation 525 jet, taking off from an airfield near Columbia. He earned his pilot's license after watching Top Gun when he was 17—he also owns a stunt plane and a Piper Cub—and he's now the only driver in NASCAR who flies solo to every race. "I love getting in my airplane after races and flying home, because the solitude allows me to relax, to unwind," he says. "Plus, if I need to be in the shop in North Carolina, I can leave my house and be in a meeting there in 2 1/2 hours. Without a plane, it would be hard for me to be in Columbia."
Around Columbia (pop. 85,000), Edwards is an A-list celebrity. He does a weekly radio show on a local station, and whenever he strolls into Key Largo Fitness, his regular gym, so many people shake his hand that you'd think he was the mayor. Edwards is a workout fiend, starting as early as 5:30 a.m. During test sessions at tracks he runs up and down the bleachers during lunch, and he can often be spotted jogging through the infield on race weekends. At Key Largo, Edwards, who rarely drinks and doesn't smoke, lifts and does cardio work with a group of Columbians nearly every day he's home.