"WE ARE READY"
Carl Edwards climbed out of his number 99 Ford on that cool November night at Homestead--Miami Speedway and, passing a cluster of cameras and notebooks, beelined it to crew chief Bob Osborne. After coming in second in the final race of the 2011 season, behind Stewart—and finishing the Chase tied with Stewart in points but losing the championship on the tiebreaker—Edwards huddled for four minutes with Osborne. "You're the only crew chief I ever want to be with," Edwards told Osborne. "I'll stay with you as long as you'll have me."
Why was Edwards, who had just lost the closest championship in the 63-year history of Cup racing, so adamant about expressing his happiness with Osborne? Two reasons: He had just concluded a career year (he held the points lead for more than half the season), and, more significant, he sensed that a title would one day be his as long as he remained with the 37-year-old Osborne, a cerebral, crafty crew chief who has been atop the number 99 pit box for most of Edwards's eight years in the Cup series. "We're getting closer to where we need to be," Edwards said after speaking to Osborne on pit road at Homestead. "This isn't an ending tonight; it's a beginning."
For Edwards to contend again this season, though, a fast start is critical. "If Carl and Bob struggle right out of the gate, there's a good chance they'll never hit their stride, kind of like Denny Hamlin last year after he came so close to winning the championship in 2010," says Waltrip, noting that Hamlin finished ninth in points in '11. "The agony of defeat can linger in NASCAR. You get drained emotionally when you come so close, and there's a tendency to be not as sharp the following year. But if Carl can get a win early, he can overcome that agony and get refueled emotionally."
On a recent morning, while driving through his hometown of Columbia, Mo., Edwards gazed ahead to the upcoming season. "Our cars are better, our engines are better, our pit crew is fast, and Bob and I are still together," said Edwards, who has 19 career Cup wins. "I've got a ton of confidence. What happened last year has made us extremely motivated. We are ready."
"THE TRIGGER GOES OFF"
One afternoon in late January, Kyle Busch sat on an elevated stage in a hotel conference room in Concord patiently answering questions from a crowd of NASCAR reporters for nearly an hour about why he believes this season will be different for him, why his notorious on-track meltdowns will no longer sabotage his title chances. "I realize that if you keep getting in trouble, you're not going to be in this sport very long," Busch said. "There are a bunch of things I wish I could take back, but I can't. I've got to earn respect back. To do that I've made changes."
To review: In November, during a truck series race at Texas Motor Speedway, Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. while the race was under caution. NASCAR parked Busch for one Nationwide race and one Cup event. His primary sponsor, M&M's, pulled its backing for two races (M&M's has returned to sponsor Busch in 2012), and Busch was given a stern talking to about his behavior by his owner, Joe Gibbs.
It appears that Busch just may have been scared straight. For the first time since 2005, he won't run in the majority of Nationwide races this season and won't compete in any truck events. Why is this significant? Because most in the garage believe that the reason Busch had come unhinged in recent seasons—see both his on-track dustups and his awful record in the Chase, in which he has finished no higher than eighth in the last four years—is because he has been physically and emotionally run down. In 2011, for instance, he competed in a total of 71 Cup, Nationwide and truck races; by contrast Stewart, the current Cup holder, made only 38 starts across NASCAR's three top series last year.
"Kyle feels like Superman, but I think he's gotten tired late in the year," says Dave Rogers, Busch's crew chief. "In two of the last four years Kyle has led the points going into the Chase, and then the performance just hasn't been there when it really matters. By lightening the load, he'll stay fresher. The focus isn't on running three series anymore. It's entirely on Cup and winning that first championship."