NASCAR has four words for you, Carl Edwards: Thanks for the distraction.
After a week in which the sport was roundly criticized again for perhaps being too lenient on drivers and crew chiefs caught cheating at Las Vegas, with a rules and handing package that has come under increasing scrutiny, and with its most popular driver in Dale Jr. suddenly incapable of cracking the Top 20, NASCAR needed something to take fan’s minds off the future state of the sport. One dazzling display of driving skill, one daring move on the final lap, and one photo finish later, the sport had exactly what it needed for a “let’s get back to racing and forget about our problems” type of weekend, all thanks to a 25-year-old from Missouri who wasn’t even a part of the sport five years ago. But let’s face it: with his weekend sweep of the Atlanta races on Sunday, Carl Edwards looks like an integral part of NASCAR’s future for a long time to come. Like it or not, Edwards is well on his way to superstar status, and by all accounts, it seems like this can be nothing but a good thing.
You see, as NASCAR began the 21st Century, the sport was churning out instant superstars at lightning speed. Tony Stewart. Ryan Newman. Jimmie Johnson. Kevin Harvick. Even with the loss of Dale Earnhardt, it seemed like drivers were coming out of the woodwork wherever you turned that would lead NASCAR not just into the era of 2010, 2011, and 2012, but who were so good instantaneously they could compete for titles in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Johnson nearly won the title in his rookie season, while Harvick won a race in just his third try. Stewart set a rookie record for wins in 1999 that still hasn’t been broken.
But somewhere along the line, the steady influx of instant superstars hit a bit of a wall. Despite the brilliance of Kasey Kahne, rookies went winless in 2004 for the first time in six years, and drivers with yellow stripes had just one win in the last two seasons heading into Sunday (Greg Biffle’s fuel mileage run at Daytona in July of 2003). Certainly, Kahne will be great someday, but he’s endured a bit of a sophomore slump in 2005, and clearly isn’t ready to contend for a championship at this point in his career.
And when you look at that group of drivers contending at the top, that list has stabilized more than you might think. Only one driver in last year’s Top 10 in points broke that barrier for the first time in his career—- Elliott Sadler. In fact, a look at the top ten in points over the past three seasons shows that five drivers have finished there every year, while another two have been there the past two out of three. That doesn’t leave much room for other drivers to squeeze in. Add in the fact that some of the sport’s more colorful, veteran drivers in Rusty Wallace, Jimmy Spencer, Ward Burton, and Sterling Marlin have been fading into mid-pack, and the new-generation NASCAR fan has been faced with not only the same drivers at the top, but more “cookie-cutter,” politically-correct versions then they’ve previously been used to. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Jimmie Johnson is going to earn the nickname “Mr. Excitement” anytime soon. And when those drivers do show some type of flare, they may find themselves well out of bounds in NASCAR’s G-rated environment (see Earnhardt Jr., Dale: Talladega victory lane swearing incident).
Enter Edwards. A distant relative to Ken Schrader (Carl’s dad and Kenny are cousins), Carl grew up around the world of racing. Not only was Carl a small part of the Schrader bloodline, but his dad was also a successful racer in both modifieds and midgets in the Midwest. Recognizing his son’s desire to get involved in racing at an early age, the father sent the son to volunteer at Ken Schrader’s race shop when Carl turned 16. Edwards wanted to drive Schrader’s ARCA car, but the veteran wisely refused, forcing the young driver to cut his teeth on dirt while gaining valuable experience that would help him down the road.
And starting from the bottom meant major sacrifices, as it always does. Carl’s dad made his son work for everything he got, sometimes having Carl work on the cars he raced on the weekends as well as Carl’s own. Anything from tuning the engine, to putting air in the tires, to sweeping up the shop floor, Carl took care of for both himself and his father, a routine that kept him grounded as well as in touch with every aspect of what makes a race car tick. Also, Carl’s mom would pitch in to routinely finance her son’s racing career in whatever way she could, putting herself in dire straits to give her son the chance to pursue his own dream. Carl himself was also forced to work a variety of jobs during the week to get the money to keep racing, an experience which both humbled him and forged appreciation for the people and things around him.
That the down-to-earth personality of Edwards continues to shine through in the Nextel Cup world is startling. It’s not like Edwards is the only driver who had to make sacrifices to get where he needs to be, and with thousands of worshipping fans and a ride most drivers could only dream of, the NASCAR world’s given him many opportunities to inflate his ego. But Edwards’ appeal goes further than his grassroots mentality. The man looks and acts like he truly enjoys getting in the race car each and every Sunday. Whereas most Cup drivers nowadays look like they’re ready to get the week over with after days of sponsor appearances, practice, qualifying, and fan appreciation events, Edwards appears to have the energy to run a marathon. Forget the Coca-Cola 600; if today’s race was the Mountain Dew Southern 1500, chances are you’d see Edwards running at the finish without a drop of sweat off his brow.
The man is simply a breath of fresh air in a sport that’s increasingly paranoid about getting stale, and what’s better for NASCAR, the man looks and acts like he’s straight out of the 1950s. Looking at his post-race comments after his first win on Sunday, you’d think lines had been stolen straight from Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “I’m the luckiest man in the world. This is beyond my wildest dreams. I can’t believe I have this opportunity.” It’s that type of down-home honesty that shines through to the general public, rather than a few sentences of sponsor-heavy statements from run-of-the-mill drivers that seem like they’re being read off a teleprompter. For once, NASCAR has a young driver capable of developing his personality without punching a photographer (Tony Stewart) or trying to fight someone else’s crew chief (Robby Gordon).
In short, Carl Edwards is nothing more than glad to be part of the greatest racing America has to offer, and we all hope that enthusiasm never dies. Believe me, NASCAR’s betting on it.
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