While it’s not yet a mathematical impossibility, at 192 points back of prohibitive favorite Jimmie Johnson with just six races to go, for all intents and purposes Carl Edwards’s quest for his first Sprint Cup crown is over.
Given the optimism swirling around the No. 99 team headed into Daytona back in February on the back of a second-place, series-leading nine-win, 27 top-10 season, there were many pundits and fans who expected 2009 to be the year Edwards went from potential to presumptive champion. Yet so far, that’s definitely not been the case in what’s been a disappointing year to put it mildly. Yes, Edwards made the elite field of 12, but this September nobody tipped him as a genuine threat to unseat the back-to-back-to-back champ once he made the Chase. Names such as Martin, Gordon, Montoya and Stewart were bandied around, but there were very few serious predictions that Carl could best the rest and become the 2009 series champion.
So, what’s gone wrong? As is often the case, the answer is not necessarily that easy. No one can argue, however, the relative lack of speed can be expanded to include all of Roush Fenway Racing this year. After a brace of victories for 2003 title winner Matt Kenseth to open the season, the five RFR racers haven’t troubled those folks tasked with waving the checkers since that late February afternoon at Auto Club Speedway. The lack of success, in relative terms, is an affliction that all five of the RFR wheelmen have suffered this year. Kenseth missed the Chase for the first time in his career, Jamie McMurray has had three top 10s all year and David Ragan, who many figured would make a strong charge for the playoffs, has appeared to regress with only two top-10 efforts: a sixth place in the Daytona 500 and a seventh-place run last Sunday. Greg Biffle, meanwhile, did make the Chase but it seems he, like Carl, expended all his bullets just making the final field of 12. The lack of testing may have been a factor for them, as well as some difficulties keeping up with the exceptional engineering and chassis tools used by Hendrick.
But whatever the reasons, all five drivers have fallen short of the preseason expectations… and arguably no one more so than Cousin Carl. That is not, to be clear, an attempt to denigrate his effort, rather a reflection of the lofty status based on the back of a tremendous 2008 season. Despite winning three of the final five races, including the season’s denouement at Homestead, Edwards failed in his quest for a maiden championship by some 69 points. It’s also worth noting that he would have won the title by 16 had the old points system still been in place.
So other than raw speed and a general downturn in fortunes for Jack Roush and Co. this year, what other factors have contributed to Edwards’s insipid form? In a word: Luck. Take the race at Texas earlier this year. We all remember “four-time” won the event, a first victory at the cookie-cutter circuit for Jeff Gordon, but what might be lost in the shuffle is that Cousin Carl was dominating until 30 laps to go, when an errant pit stop saw him fall from first on entry to 10th across the stripe at the end of pit road. Then, at Talladega, we had the flying car into the catchfence incident when an ill-advised blocking move on “No Holds Barred Brad” Keselowski saw Edwards go from leading exiting the final corner to a 24th-place finish.
Those tough circumstances notwithstanding, the facts paint a damning story of a lost season that was supposed to come with a handful of victories attached. Instead, Edwards has led just 162 laps all year, 103 of which came at Pocono. That’s good enough for 14th-best overall, but far from good enough if you want to dethrone the Jimmie-Robot.
Compounding the issue for Carl was the broken foot, courtesy of a Frisbee incident on the eve of the Chase. Now I know the man himself said it was no problem; but let’s be fair, he isn’t exactly going to say it’s a massive issue – that would be foolish. And I can’t help but feel in a sport where you need your feet as much as you do your quick wits and unstinting courage that a broken foot has to have some sort of negative effect. Were it anyone else but the man with the biggest smile in NASCAR, I’d even be suspicious that it was another athlete excuse; but in the case of Edwards, I’ve gotta say I believe it happened like he told it. Sometimes, gentle readers, truth is stranger than fiction.
But barring a points miracle (or someone sabotaging the No. 48 team for six straight weeks) Edwards is not going to win the championship this year. It looks like he’ll fall short in the Nationwide Series, too, although Saturday was a great points day for him with replacement driver Denny Hamlin crashing out following a racing incident with Biffle and (surprise, surprise) Keselowski. One quick thing here: There has to be something in the fact that both of the full-time Cup drivers moonlighting in the Nationwide Series, Kyle Busch being the other, have struggled at the Cup level….
But whatever the cause, for all intents and purposes 2009 looks to be an “off” year for Carl and the entire RFR organization. Knowing Jack Roush, he’s already planning a resurgence in 2010 with the RPM-Yates addition as part of his massive counterattack on the Hendrick dominance up top.
Whatever the strategy, Roush better get going… for Carl Edwards’s championship hopes and dreams will soon depend on it once again.
A couple of points to finish up with…
- Hamlin’s mental error Sunday finished off his fleeting championship chances. For a driver who’s been in the mix all season long, despite being perhaps the least tipped driver to make the Chase, it was an ignominious end to what has been, at times, an excellent season. Credit Hamlin, however, for stepping up and admitting his error: “I just made a rookie mistake. I thought I was clear and I misjudged it. I’ve got to apologize to the team. They deserve better than that. They got me out front. It was a bad mistake.”
- Another weekend, another disappointing attendance at the Auto Club Speedway. Surely the time has come to cut down to one race at the track that fans forget even exists out west. NASCAR’s having a hard enough time as it is, and to have banks and banks of empty seats in a crucial Chase race is not the message the sport needs to be sending. It’s time to make a change, no question about it.