What’s not to like about Carl Edwards?
He loves his mother. He gives away his race win trophies to deserving causes. He lists his hometown as his favorite vacation spot. He’s put his money where his mouth is, and started a record business with a high-school buddy. He’s even appeared on the hit series 24, where he got a brief role as a Homeland Security Agent – not to mention playing the starring role in a number of great ad campaigns. Plus, he’s in good enough shape to go bare-chested on a national magazine. Oh yeah, and can he wheel a racecar right on the ragged edge to victory – and then get out and do a back flip like he’s been for a nice cruise in the countryside.
Yet it seems despite all that, plenty of people are ready to take a pop at Edwards for any kind of minor transgression. For proof, witness the fake punch on teammate Matt Kenseth after the Martinsville Chase race last season. The reaction following the incident was, in my mind, punishment that in no way fit the crime. Sure, if Edwards had punched his teammate’s lights out on national TV it would have been different, but it was absolutely nothing. The real amusing aspect was how bad Kenseth flinched – a flinch we’ve not seen since Jeff Gordon manned up to the driver of the DeWalt Ford at Bristol in March of 2006.
Suddenly unflinching once the cameras turned towards him, Kenseth wasn’t slow to push his teammate under the bus.
“You don’t know what to expect with him,” he said the following week. “That’s the thing that’s a little bit troublesome. One minute, [Edwards] has so much respect for you, and he’s real friendly and everything’s so much fun. The next minute, he wants to kick your butt and he’s swearing at you. It’s a little scary. You never know what you’re going to get.”
“I thought it was good, in a way, that the cameras were there because a lot of us see that, and nobody else does because he kind of puts on a different front.”
Strong words from the driver of the No. 17; but then again, perhaps he was reacting to the fact that Edwards actually has a personality. Kenseth seems to have misplaced his some time ago – a fact compounded by his failure to sign the autograph of the fan who ran up to his car mid-race at Watkins Glen last year while the race was red-flagged.
It does, however, beg the question as to which Edwards is the real Edwards. Is it the sanitized, media savvy, all-smiling good ol’ boy – or the hard-nosed competitor who’ll bite your head off without mercy? The truth is it’s somewhere in between. You can be a Sprint Cup driver without being an absolute ruthless competitor, and that goes for everyone… from the multiple title winners right down to the guys that scratch and claw to just make the race each week.
Is Edwards perfect? No, of course not. But none of us are, and that’s what makes the human condition so appealing. For my money, Edwards is one of the good guys and the occasional outburst – however silly – does not define him as a person or a driver.
Coming into the 2008 season, all sorts of questions were being asked about the Missouri native. Did he have the intestinal fortitude to win a championship? Was he destined to be the next Mark Martin – to come oh-so-close but never quite take it all?
A case in point came in 2005, when Edwards finished just 35 points behind winner Tony Stewart – having aw shucks’d his way to four wins, 13 top fives and 18 top 10s in his first full season at the Cup level. But ’06 was a different story, as the driver of the No. 99 Ford Fusion failed to find victory lane and missed the Chase. (much to the chagrin of coach driver Tom Giacchi and his ever-growing beard) However, Carl was in good company that season as the defending champ, Stewart, also missed the cut. Still, more was expected in 2007, and Edwards won twice before starting the Chase just 40 points behind Gordon. But it wasn’t to be, as Edwards faded (despite a win at Phoenix) to end the season a disappointing ninth – 501 markers back from Jimmie Johnson‘s second straight title.
That made 2008 – by whichever definition you wanted to give it – a very important season for Edwards, given the issues swirling around vis-à-vis his contract. But after a solid start, that issue was solved in May when Edwards announced he had re-upped with Roush Fenway Racing for another three years. All problems aside, despite the marathon-like nature of the sport, a fast start for Edwards to the ‘08 season would be just what the doctor ordered. And in the heady moments after his second straight win at Las Vegas, in the third race of the season, all looked peachy for Cousin Carl on the track. But a post-race inspection infraction off it – specifically, an open oil-tank reservoir lid – cost Edwards 100 points and the 10 bonus points in the Chase. Compounding the misery, crew chief Bob Osborne was suspended for six races.
But the team didn’t crack; instead, they persevered, and former Kenseth wrench turner Robbie Reiser was a more than capable replacement atop the pit box upon Osborne’s banishment. The move led to some amusing moments, with new Roush GM Reiser calling Edwards “Matt” on more than one occasion. But he led the team through what could have been its darkest hour, and because of that, it has turned into a very strong season for Edwards and a good foundation for a championship run. With three wins, eight top fives and 14 top 10s through 20 races, he’s nearly equaled his record from last season (three wins, 11 top fives, 15 top 10s) and looks safely ensconced in the Chase despite the 100-point penalty.
Another primary goal at the outset of 2008 was for Edwards to become the first Nationwide Series champion, following his blowout victory in NASCAR’s then-Busch Series in 2007. Edwards has a keen sense for the history of the sport, and it would be a unique double on his driving resume to win both titles in the same year. With 13 races to go, that’s not out of the question – Edwards sits third, 180 points back of leader Clint Bowyer and just a razor-thin margin behind second-place Brad Keselowski. With two victories coming in the last six races – at the Milwaukee Mile and his hometown track of Gateway – Edwards is closing right on the tail of the points leader. All this has come despite choosing to scale back massively on his Nationwide effort in recent weeks, concentrating as much as possible on his Cup team while utilizing reserve drivers for practice, and – in some cases – qualification. Sol while it would be unfair to say all the eggs are in the Cup basket, there can be no question that his focus lies squarely at the Cup level.
The chance Jack Roush gave the then-unknown in 2003 was one Edwards seized with both hands, feet, and whatever other body part he could throw around the opportunity. He’s arrived at where he is today through sheer bloody-mindedness and with more than a modicum of talent. The business cards he handed out at the track before being employed are the stuff of legend – and profit. A few years back the cards, which were inscribed “If you’re looking for a driver, you’re looking for me,” were trading for as much as $400 a pop on eBay. Such confidence in one’s own ability is the stuff of successful racing drivers and, as the man himself remarked, “People used to laugh at me when I walked around tracks trying to pass out business cards.”
Seems like they’re clearly not laughing anymore. So, what are the chances for a Sprint Cup title in 2008 for Edwards? Well, after his fourth second-place showing of the season” at Indianapolis (don’t worry, I’m not going to go into a diatribe as to how poor the race was – I’ll leave that to those more qualified) questions may start to be asked as to whether he’s going to be 2008’s bridesmaid. When prompted on the subject of second place, Edwards commented, “We do this to win. That’s the thing. Winning these races is the greatest part of this whole thing for me. Winning a championship would be the ultimate. What we’re trying to do is win the championship this year. That’s our No. 1 goal. But really, truly, it’s the feeling of winning. That’s an amazing feeling.”
It’s not as if Edwards is immune to winning this year, either, with three wins in Cup and another couple in the Nationwide Series. But the bigger picture suggests that there are at least three drivers on tour that might just have Carl trumped in 2008; Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and two-time defending Cup champion Johnson. Edwards, though, has the motivation, desire, and commitment to win a title; and it also looks that he has the horsepower support he needs.
Can Edwards put it all together in his fifth Cup season and win it all? We’ll see. One thing you can guarantee, though, is that he’ll bust a gut going for it.