Carl Edwards is having one of those years – and it’s not the warm and fuzzy kind.
Now, I say that with all due respect considering the man with an occasional hot streak has handled everything with a wry smile and a “we’ll get ‘em next time attitude” so far this season. But no amount of public pandering can replace the private torment of a man who once entered this year a championship favorite in the Cup Series. Of course, back then why wouldn’t he be the trendy pick most of us in the media chose? After all, this guy was doing backflips so often last year it should be he, not Jeff Gordon, looking for a trip to the chiropractor each week. With nine wins and 27 top-10 finishes, Edwards came but an ill-timed bump at Talladega from unseating Jimmie Johnson at the Waldorf-Astoria’s head table last December.
Yet in a cruel irony, Talladega’s been the scene of Edwards’s most memorable moment this year, one in which a wildly flipping No. 99 went from the winners’ circle to making mincemeat out of the catchfence in a last lap tragedy all-too-narrowly averted. It’s the most glaring late-race mistake in a season filled with all the little things that were supposed to catapult him forward but have instead conspired to turn things the other way. There was pit-road miscue after pit-road miscue through spring and early summer, resulting in some crew changes that have continued all the way through the past few weeks, when Jack Roush even plucked someone from Jamie McMurray’s No. 26 to help bolster the No. 99’s overall performance. There’s been the struggles with track position, peaking in Friday qualifying sessions leaving Edwards with just five top 10 starts compared to 12 at this point last year. And as the front man for a Blue Oval team who should be in great shape after watching the funding from Chevy and Dodge collapse into Chapter 11 hell, he’s merely the poster boy behind a fleet of Fusions who have been hell on wheels in a season where both the chassis and engineering support are well behind the curve. Even the little things Edwards does well have been ineffective; once the fuel mileage king, he’s watched half the field pick up on his tactics, with gas mileage winning others about half-a-dozen races.
All these obstacles have been enough to leave Edwards down, but not out, which brings us to Montreal and why this weekend carries a whiff of added importance. It didn’t start out all that great; on Saturday, Edwards crashed a Grand Am car he was scheduled to co-drive with Marcos Ambrose on the pace laps, slamming driver’s side first into the outside wall in a crash that’s reportedly left his body a little sore (Edwards insists all is A-OK). Starting on the outside pole for the race, he was passed over as a favorite to win in favor of Ambrose, defending champ and Canadian road-course ace Ron Fellows, Nationwide championship rival Kyle Busch, and so many others. After all, the stats don’t necessarily label Edwards an expert at turning left and right; he had just 48 laps led and no wins in 21 career road-course starts prior to Sunday.
Yet while the numbers aren’t in his favor, no driver at racing’s top level will ever be inclined to fully admit a weakness. And when I brought up Edwards’s poor road-course record while shooting the breeze earlier this year, I was met with heavy resistance as he claimed he’s often more comfortable behind the wheel on those tracks than anywhere else. “You may not think of me as a road-course guy,” Edwards insisted. “But I just haven’t had the finishes or the luck at those tracks.”
This Monday morning, of course, it’s hard to say that anymore after a scintillating performance in which the Missouri native, running second, stole the trophy on the final corner of the final lap. After Ambrose dominated the race, leading 60 of the first 75 laps, Edwards jumped to second during a green-white-checkered restart, pressured the Tasmanian through the final set of turns and watched in disbelief as the hottest road-course racer on the circuit this season made the wrong move at the wrong time, wheel-hopping off turn 14 to give the veteran just enough room to pass right by heading to the checkered flag.
“I just gave it everything I had on that last lap,” Edwards said, referencing a final restart in which he nearly wrecked Andrew Ranger to grab second and then run down Ambrose with surprising ease over the final five miles. “Marcos just made that one mistake through the curves at the end and gave me the chance to get by.”
Certainly, not everyone was happy with Edwards, as the aforementioned move on Ranger forced him to get loose and the field to check up behind – a chain reaction which caused a 10-car wreck that took out his main rival Busch. But while Busch endured his second straight race outside the top three, Edwards’s win suddenly did more than shore up a perceived weakness in the eyes of critics – it brought him within 192 points of a title he so desperately wants to win a second time. Gaining 146 points in the last two races, a championship battle that appeared Busch’s to lose is now suddenly a two-horse race.
That glimmer of hope brings us full circle to the title Edwards wants to win most of all. Despite his season’s worth of disappointments on the Cup side, Edwards remains comfortably in the Chase and will likely finish the regular season in the top five in points. Currently 40 points behind Mark Martin and potentially Busch (they have four wins to Edwards’s none at that level), he’s no longer considered much of a potential title threat. But if that’s going to change… now is the time. After all, Atlanta this Sunday represents the bread and butter of where Edwards has made his career – intermediate tracks – and always retains a special place in his heart as the place where he scored his first career Cup win in ’05. Considering Fords have been at their best at 1.5-2-mile ovals – teammate Greg Biffle nearly won Texas in April and Michigan this June – it’s likely the last chance to score that all-important victory that gets him off the goose egg heading into the Chase. No one has entered the playoffs winless and come out holding the title trophy when all is said and done; and considering we’re talking about a guy who I know from personal experience thinks racing and its statistics 24/7, don’t think for a second he’s not aware of that.
Watching Edwards from afar in victory lane on Sunday, he looked like a man with a monkey off his back, grateful for the gift he’d been given and genuinely more excited than he’d been at anytime in this frustrating year.
But to see if it’s the start of a real turnaround, we’ll just have to see what that face looks like next Sunday.