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THEY CALL IT THE BUBBLE. Drivers, crew chiefs, owners, mechanics, officials, p.r. reps, even most of the national NASCAR media live inside this virtual sphere. Each weekend during the season the bubble floats from the green hills around Charlotte, where seemingly 95% of the sport's participants and chroniclers reside, to a racetrack somewhere else. But even during the week, most of NASCAR's movers and shakers rarely venture outside the bubble, as if it were their sole source of oxygen.
Like high school, the bubble is rife with rumors—You notice that team cheating with their splitters last week? You hear who Bob hooked up with in the infield at Talladega ?—and inside it every conversation, from garage to five-star restaurant, revolves around one topic: NASCAR. The bubble is a distorted world where the only president who truly matters is the president of NASCAR, Mike Helton, and where rival drivers serve as groomsmen at each other's weddings. But if you don't become a citizen of the bubble, you can't join the traveling circus that is the Sprint Cup Series.
Unless, that is, you're Carl Edwards. On an arctic afternoon in January, Edwards, the 2008 Sprint Cup runner-up known for his victory backflips and his sponsor-friendly grin, is behind the wheel of his 2008 Ford F-350 pickup, cruising down the main drag of Columbia, Mo., 700 miles from the edge of the bubble. Edwards owns a house in Charlotte, but he spends a total of only four weeks a year there. He lives in Columbia, the place that, Edwards swears, gives him an edge over every other driver.
"I don't want to have close friendships with other drivers," says Edwards, the ultimate NASCAR outsider. "I don't want to be thinking about personal relationships when I'm on the track. I'm there for one reason: to win. And I don't want anything clouding my judgment, like, Should I be afraid to race this guy hard because he's my friend? Do I go easy on him? That's a big reason why I don't stay in Charlotte like almost everyone else. I need to get away from NASCAR. And I know I'm faster on Sundays because I spend my time away from racing in Columbia."
If there is one driver poised to prevent Jimmie Johnson from winning a fourth straight Cup championship this season, which starts on Sunday with the 51st running of the Daytona 500, it's Edwards. And NASCAR, with its sagging attendance and TV ratings, desperately needs a driver to step up and be the Pearson to Johnson's Petty. Edwards, 29, is in the pole position to be that challenger. After all, over the 36 races of 2008, he actually scored more points than Johnson (5,236 to 5,220) and won more races (nine to seven). But in the 10-race Chase, Johnson beat Edwards by 69 points to become the first driver in 30 years to three-peat. Edwards senses that he's closed the gap on Johnson—and so does nearly every other driver in the garage.
"Carl is the biggest threat to Jimmie," says Kyle Busch, who won eight races in '08. "Everywhere we go, he can drive the car so yawed out"—meaning with the back end sliding up the track through the turns—"it's unbelievable. He gets more out of the car in terms of speed and fuel mileage than anyone. He'll be very, very strong this year."
YOU WANT to be scared?" Edwards asks a passenger as he steers his pickup down a dark, empty highway outside Columbia. He's speeding past snow-covered corn and wheat fields at 70 mph, and suddenly he turns off his headlights, making it impossible to see the ribbon of road ahead. "It's like we're in a Twilight Zone episode, man," he says in a low voice as the truck plows through the darkness. As he looks at you, his mischievous pale-blue eyes glow in the light from the dashboard. "So, you scared? Are you?"
This is quintessential Carl. Without question he's the most daring, unpredictable and entertaining driver in NASCAR. "Carl makes more three-wide passes than anyone else," says 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch. In the 2008 Chase, Edwards's unmatched aggression nearly won him the championship—but in the end it was the reason why he lost it. Here's a review.
? Kansas Speedway, Sept. 28, Chase race number 3. On the last lap of the race Edwards trails the leader, Johnson, by two car lengths as they head into Turn 3. Instead of easing off the throttle, Edwards holds the gas pedal to the floor. He blazes past Johnson, but then physics takes over: His car climbs the track and slams into the wall, which allows Johnson to pass him and win the race. Edwards, somehow maintaining control after the impact, comes across the line in second. "I planned on hitting the wall," Edwards says after the race, "but I didn't plan on the wall slowing me down that much. I've played a lot of video games where you can just run it into the wall and hold it wide open. That's what I did, but it didn't work out quite the same as a video game." ("There is no way in hell I would have tried that," says Greg Biffle, Edwards's teammate at Roush Fenway Racing. "Every driver afterward was like, 'Damn, Carl has got some big f------ balls.'")