Summer Bedgood · Monday March 4, 2013
“Feel good stories” are the best, aren’t they? They make you feel all warm and cuddly inside and, just for a moment, you believe the best in people. Even in the worst of circumstances, sometimes those amazing moments are all you need to put a smile on your face for the rest of the week.
Most of you in NASCAR Nation, however, might not have considered Sunday a “feel good moment.” At least, not right away. Although Carl Edwards broke a 70-race winless streak, there was no sob story behind it, no fireworks, nothing more than a driver winning the second race of the season, mostly uncontested during a green-white-checkered ending. You may have been frustrated, the cause anything from the racing itself at Phoenix to your favorite driver enduring a bad day.
Then … it all changed once Edwards stopped his car on the frontstretch and got out. The smile on his face had him practically glowing, ready to jump into the crowd and interact with the fan base in a way most don’t. Add to that the flawless backflip, plus the enthusiasm in Victory Lane, and suddenly it equaled an equation of a “feel good” race win.
“But wait!” you may be saying. “Aside from the backflip, what was so different about this victory? Every driver is excited!”
Of course they are. They wouldn’t be drivers if they weren’t. But, honestly, other than fans who genuinely hate Edwards because of something silly from his past, it was hard for anyone in the stands Sunday to leave feeling badly about who won. You would have to think those select few, who just couldn’t accept it fell into three categories. Group A: Edwards, at one time in his life wrecked their favorite driver/made snide comments about them. (Funny, seeing as one of Edwards’ biggest enemies in that department, Brad Keselowski, has come around to the point he pushed him to the front on Sunday.) Group B: Edwards snubbed them at a racetrack for an autograph when, like many other drivers he already has one million different things going on. Or Group C: Just because they’re miserable, themselves and need someone to hate. But for the other 90-some percent of NASCAR Nation… the joy Edwards felt couldn’t help but spread. Are you going to honestly say that you weren’t smiling when you saw how elated he was to finally be back in Victory Lane, ending a drought that’s nearly lasted two years?
I’m not saying this man is your favorite driver or that he needs to be. What Edwards needs to become is what happened on Sunday: a weekly contender who’s someone people see at the front more often, getting interviewed by TV for his success. That’s because – let’s be honest – NASCAR could use more drivers like this one. Occasionally, you need the bad guy thrown in to keep things interesting, but it’s difficult to have a mix like Edwards who is media and sponsor friendly yet still comes off as genuine.
Don’t get me wrong. I roll my eyes, even as a journalist covering the sport just as much as anyone when Edwards casually works in a sly sponsor plug in the midst of an interview, such as “that Subway breakfast sandwich is going to taste great in the morning” he uttered on SPEED’s Victory Lane program. But I wasn’t rolling my eyes because I was sick and tired of the corporate system taking personalities away from the drivers, feeding them rehearsed and overused talking points. I was rolling my eyes because it was just so darn corny! Genuine, but corny.
It’s why I also feel like Brad Keselowski is such a good champion for this sport. He, too, is also very genuine but still wins out with sponsors. After all, who could forget that ESPN interview where he chugged from a huge glass of Miller Lite on the eve of his title win? Though I doubt we’ll ever see Edwards slightly intoxicated, if and when he ever wins a Sprint Cup Series championship, you can still imagine he’ll have the same energy and excitement behind him – with the right balance of corporate support.
It’s also why, in my view Jimmie Johnson’s championship string makes so many fans cringe. I usually just picture an interview with Edwards and Johnson in front of a mainstream, non-NASCAR-watching audience and wonder what their reaction will be. With Johnson, I feel like he comes off as stale, rehearsed, and generally unenthusiastic. With Edwards, I feel like he comes off as well-spoken, excited, and generally able to please both sponsors and fans. One plays better with an audience than another.
That’s important, especially as NASCAR works to build on its popularity. In theory, as long as the race and championship Chase is exciting, fans should be just fine with the outcome. However, the way Edwards handles himself, both on and off the track is a style I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more up and coming drivers adopt, critical for the sport’s future success. Sure it’s a good thing for them to be themselves, but at the same time, show some excitement! A sponsor might be breathing down their neck, but they will be shaking their hand when an over-enthusiastic Victory Lane makes its rounds on social media, earns the team more fans, and helps expand the reach of stock car racing. Stuffiness, especially when combined with political correctness is not the way to go for this sport to grow.
I don’t know what the rest of 2013 holds for Edwards. He could fizzle out and disappear again for another two years, or he could once again challenge for the championship. One thing that I do know for sure, though. The next time Edwards stands in Victory Lane, the majority of NASCAR’s fan base will wind up smiling and enjoying it, too.
That’s something everyone should be happy about.
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