Carl Edwards was happy as could be in victory lane at Michigan; and why not? A weekend sweep at the track left him the toast of the Nationwide and Cup Series garages – at least until NASCAR hits Bristol’s high banks later this week. But once a reporter in the press room asked about his confidence, Edwards’s emotions took a surprising turn – quickly jumping from his cool, collected self to a statement that was borderline out of character. With a few short sentences, happy-go-lucky Cousin Carl suddenly jumped straight out of the frying pan and into the ego that had just been padded with his 12th win in 144 career Cup starts.
“My psyche and mentality is pretty much fixed on I’m the greatest racecar driver that ever lived,” he said, to the awe of friends and enemies alike. “David Pearson told me that if you don’t believe that, you don’t belong in a racecar.”
It’s clear that Pearson’s advice has gone to good use, creating the greatest of public sales jobs for a man who’ll be millions of fans’ best hopes to unseat Kyle Busch for this year’s title trophy. But don’t let Edwards fool you. Deep down, he’s been busy sweating bullets for the better part of six months, part of a title-contending team that had all but raced itself out of a title it could contend for.
Instead, that championship seemed to almost automatically belong to Busch this season; at least, until a slight corner of that automatic label got snatched with Sunday’s second-place finish. But it’s no sweat off the point leader’s back; leading the circuit in virtually every major stat category, Busch didn’t need to win on Sunday.
It’s amazing for a second-place team to be backed against the wall in August, especially under a playoff format that gives 12 cars a realistic shot at the championship starting at New Hampshire. But for Edwards, the man who’s been Busch’s chief rival these last six months has instead been looking more and more like his favorite candidate for runner-up finisher. Entering the weekend, the two-man combo had finished first and second three times in 2008: and in each one of those races, it was Edwards watching from afar as the No. 18 team sprayed the bubbly in victory lane.
It’s not that Edwards has slumped badly this season; far from it. In fact, his five wins are a new single-season high for the man who’s quickly becoming Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 1 superstar. But every time Edwards has gotten on a roll, Busch has come back with what’s seemingly been a consistent streak of knockout punches. It started early in March, when Edwards won Las Vegas only to be busted for a faulty oil cover. That cost him 100 points and his lead in the standings, leaving the No. 99 in what would amount to a three-week slump. And while the Roush Fenway team got caught with its pants down, Busch pulled the curtain down on the rest of the field the following week at Atlanta – pulling to victory lane while Edwards finished 42nd with a blown engine.
And just like someone flipped a switch, that pattern would hold for most of the spring and early summer. As Edwards got his feet back underneath him in April – scoring a win at Fort Worth – Busch was in victory lane three weeks later at Talladega. That would start a streak of three wins in five races, two of which saw Edwards run second only to lose by an average margin of three and a half seconds – an eternity in the Cup Series these days. As June turned to July, Busch’s wins piled up while Edwards fought hard, piledriving up to second in the standings. But as Busch reminded him with a season-high eighth win at Watkins Glen – just seven days after Edwards had smoked the field at Pocono – second place is still the first loser.
And here we were at the end of the race on Sunday, with Busch preparing to put the loser tag on Edwards once again. After struggling early, Busch’s car had led 34 of the last 57 laps, and he sat second to Edwards on the race’s final restart with two laps to go. The No. 99 appeared as little more than child’s play for Busch; after all, he’d disposed of two-time champ Jimmie Johnson during a green/white/checkered restart at Chicagoland one month earlier, after another possible win for Edwards buckled under the weight of a broken splitter. Surely, his most faithful runner-up would have no problem snapping once again.
But something funny happened this time. Edwards didn’t bend or break – although he admitted to being a little bent out of shape with the No. 18 in his rear-view mirror.
“Kyle’s good on restarts,” he admitted, so-called confidence replaced by serious concern. “That’s just a fact. So, I just didn’t want to have to go through that pain, and I just did everything I could to have the best restart I could – and it worked out great.”
Oh yeah, it did. The victory by Edwards gave him another 10-point bonus for when the Chase starts in September, allowing him to climb within 40 of Busch for the top spot. And while there’s only three regular season races remaining – making a move to jump ahead mathematically impossible – Fontana in two weeks offers Edwards a chance for a season sweep and a sixth win, leaving him in perfect position to challenge Busch once the playoffs begin.
“Carl [Edwards] is right there, has been all year. He’s been the guy that we’ve got to race on these mile-and-a-half, 2-mile racetracks,” Busch admitted. “He’s been decent at other racetracks, too, but not as stout as he is at these, and there’s a lot of those in the Chase. We’ve still got some work cut out for us.”
“It’s a 20-point swing, so we’ve got to live with it, we’ve got to take it and hopefully we can make up for it somewhere else.”
What Edwards couldn’t have lived with was another second-place finish. A ninth win for Busch would have left him 60 ahead of Edwards and 90 ahead of some of his challengers once the playoffs began; not a large enough security blanket for him to feel safe, but enough to absorb a bad race if he had one. Meanwhile, Edwards would have started the playoffs both under the gun and under fire, facing a large deficit while still fighting to prove he could beat Busch in a one-on-one duel to the checkered flag.
“What it helps with is points,” he said about his latest trophy. “I’m sure Kyle feels the same way. It’s just that when we beat him, it’s a 20-point spread. And it goes the other way… I finished second to him a few times this year, and that’s frustrating.”
But now that frustration is replaced by hope, a faint flicker of it that could grow brighter by the day. Edwards’s major goal for the regular season is now complete, as he’s got the confidence and the wherewithal to move forward and realize that Busch is not unbeatable – no matter how much anyone might think otherwise.
“Deep down, you really have to believe in yourself,” he explained. “I think everyone who performs at a high level in every sport does. I was watching the Olympics and it struck me – you see individuals that achieve so well and they achieve such great things, and there’s all the other folks who don’t. And just having the guts to go out there and jump in the water and swim or go run 100 meters in front of the whole world and compete; you know you have the chance to lose, but you just have to do the very best you can. That’s all you can do.”
Just like those Olympians, Edwards played not to lose on Sunday; he simply had no other choice. But now that he’s won, he opens the door and the possibility just that one little bit that if he’s on his game from beginning to end, someone else might actually stand a chance against Kyle Busch yet.
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