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Holding a Pretty Wheel: A Tale of 2 Drivers, Will the Real Carl Edwards Please Stand Up?

On one side of the garage, there’s a driver who is thrilled when he wins and gracious when he’s not. He owns up when he causes something on track. He’s kind and funny with the fans, and has worked his butt off to get to the top level of the sport. He contends for championships and champions kids. Say hello and you’ll be rewarded with a bright smile.

Elsewhere in the garage, there’s a driver who often acts surly and rude. He takes out a volatile temper with a racecar and makes moves on track that he doesn’t care if someone else gets taken out on the other end of. He makes snide remarks and some off the cuff statements that are downright scary. He has been known to shove another driver in the garage.

I’m not talking about Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. Nope, not Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch either. Or Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick. I’m talking about Carl Edwards… and Carl Edwards. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

One Edwards is a truly nice guy. When he was walking through the garage at Michigan this summer, he saw a kid in a wheelchair with a Carl Edwards flag attached. Edwards stopped and talked to the boy, 15-year-old Cody Byrnes. He promised the boy that if he won the race on Sunday, he would give him the trophy. And he delivered on both parts of the deal. Byrnes sleeps with the trophy on his bedside table, and Edwards probably sleeps a little better at night knowing that he was truly a hero to one child on that day.

Two weeks ago at Kansas, after making a move for the win so bold it bordered on outright crazy, Edwards had to settle for second when he couldn’t make the move stick, drifting up into the outside wall which killed his momentum and allowed Johnson to take both the checkers and the point lead. Most drivers would have been disappointed, as Edwards no doubt was, but he hid it well. Edwards was the first person to congratulate Johnson on the win, commenting on how much fun he’d had racing Johnson for the win. He was smiling in his postrace interview, joking that it didn’t do nearly as much damage to his car when he’d tried the move in a video game. He was just a racer enjoying a good race.

Edwards is involved with several charity events, including Stewart’s annual Prelude to the Dream at Eldora Speedway, which raises money for Victory Junction Gang Camp, which he has won. He has given away other trophies. He genuinely enjoys meeting and taking to his fans, and he’s not afraid to make fun of himself – he has a few stories from his substitute teaching days that are roll-on-the-floor funny, including an unsuspecting trip to the restroom only to discover that the students had directed him to the girls’ room. He made up business cards to advertise himself as a driver – and forgot to change his cell phone number even after he became a household name, until a close up of one of the cards made its way to the Internet and Edwards got a lot of very interesting phone calls. What he counts as his favorite personal car is an ancient Mazda that doesn’t even start without a push to get it running. He’s got the smile and personality like the kid next door.

But the kid next door has a mean streak. He tries to hide it, and he often can beneath a smile or behind a closed door. But there’s a temper there, and it can be ugly. At Pocono in 2006, Edwards was the innocent victim of a tiff between Stewart and Clint Bowyer. Stewart got into Bowyer, sending the No. 07 into Edwards’s No. 99, resulting in a lot of damage to Edwards’s machine. Edwards retaliated by spinning Stewart hard on pit road, into traffic… and worse, risked sending Stewart or another driver into an unprotected pit crew. That’s nothing new, but there is no circumstance in which it is ever acceptable. Edwards said he spun Stewart to the right, away from the crews in an attempt to protect them, as if that somehow excused the act. And then he went on to say to a group of reporters, “Let me just say this: If it weren’t for respect of the sport and the people watching and his team and everything, he’d be out there bleeding right now.”

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Huh? Those words came from the mouth of the driver called “Cousin Carl” for his Opie Taylor-like demeanor? Indeed they did, adding to the complexity of the man, though not in an overly positive way.

And then there was the incident at Michigan in 2006, where Edwards was leading in the final laps of a Nationwide Series race when Earnhardt got a run and Edwards got loose. Earnhardt got into the bumper and Edwards spun out, losing the race win and giving Edwards every right to be upset. What Edwards did next, however, was potentially dangerous and another piece of the driver’s darker side. While Earnhardt was making his cool-down lap, he had a hand out the window to cool off and acknowledge the congratulations of fans and drivers. Edwards sped off pit road and rammed the side of Earnhardt’s car, narrowly missing the hand of the unsuspecting Earnhardt. The injury that was narrowly avoided can’t be imagined as anything but ugly and possibly career-threatening.

And there was the half-mock swing taken at teammate Matt Kenseth at Martinsville last year. While Edwards didn’t hit Kenseth and had a grimacing smile on his face, Kenseth did not take the incident as a joke, and one television commentator called the incident “scary.” And there was the incident this week in the garage at Charlotte with Harvick. The latest stems from last week at Talladega where Edwards got into Greg Biffle and set off a 10-car pileup that collected Harvick, a championship contender, along with Edwards and Biffle. Harvick called Edwards a “pansy” for some of his racing strategy, and one thing led to another, with Edwards leaving a sarcastic note on Harvick’s airplane and searching out Harvick in the Nationwide garage on Thursday. The two exchanged some heated words and then Harvick turned to walk away. Edwards grabbed his shoulder and spun him around before being restrained by Harvick’s motorhome driver.

So which side is the real Edwards? Perhaps it’s both. The “Opie” persona that Edwards has taken on and honed suggests that he’s just a nice kid, but gosh darn it, he can’t help get mad at those other boys sometimes. The angry actions suggest a darker, more complex side to Edwards. Behind the grin and the mop of blond hair – Tom Sawyer all grown up – there’s a hungry, angry streak of emotion that won’t take a blow to either racecar-bedecked body or dignity. That streak will not tolerate anyone making a dent in racecar or persona, and it will not tolerate the persona telling it to turn off and take a hike. And so a piece of Edwards peeks through when the racecar or the calm exterior is cracked. Perhaps if the Opie persona weren’t there, the piece wouldn’t seem so cold, so angry and mean, but rather just a temper. Perhaps the good in the driver makes the bad seem worse than it is. Or perhaps that hungry, angry streak uses the good in the driver as a convincing disguise for its ugly volatility. Whatever the case, the real Edwards has proved much harder to know than on first glance.

And on the verge of a breakthrough season and with the championship in sight, the real Carl Edwards might be worth getting to know.

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