After an almost blemish free season, no mean feat in a sport that humbles you quicker than Kyle Busch drives his road cars, Sunday’s 500-miler at picturesque Pocono gave Carl Edwards just a little reminder of how the other half live. By way of a quick refresher, Edwards won the final two races of 2010 at Phoenix and Homestead, to finish in fourth spot; and he’s started this season rather like he left off the last. Until his 37th place finish at the Tricky Triangle, Edwards had one win (Las Vegas), seven top-5’s and ten top-10’s – both of which are series best marks – with a tick under 400 laps led. In short, it’s been a terrific start for the driver who might just be the one to unseat the juggernaut that is Double J from picking up a sixth straight Sprint Cup crown.
This weekend, then, it was something of a surprise to see the No. 99 car retire so early. Edwards was typically sanguine in his analysis of the issue, “One of the valves got in an argument with something in the engine and lost. We broke one valve. We don’t think it is from an over rev or anything, we just think it was a parts failure. This is a great car and a great engine.” Edwards even found time to appear on the in-field TNT set, replete with the offending piece of metal from his broken vehicle, to discuss his rare off day – a sure sign that he believes the issue was very much an isolated incident. “Our engines have been just flawless for a while,” Edwards said. “Every once in a while you are going to have a failure and we have been running well enough that hopefully we can absorb the failure….If this is the worst thing that happens all year, then that is fine. We will keep going. Michigan [this Sunday] is going to be great.”
There’s every reason for Edwards to suspect Michigan will be a case of back to business as usual. For a start, there’s the reliability and the strength of the new FR-9 Ford engine which has, in some cases, eviscerated the competition this year. Heck, let’s not forget even David Ragan has looked racy this year, not to mention teammate Matt Kenseth’s pair of wins.
Another key component is crew chief Bob Osborne. The two came together at the end of the 2004 season as Edwards made his fledgling steps into big boy racing and with the exception of a period from April to October 2006–when Osborne was assigned to Jamie McMurray and the No. 26 car–the two have been together ever since. For the record, too, Edwards went winless in 2006 without his long-time head wrench.
Chemistry between crew chief and driver is in many ways a nebulous concept, but what’s clear is that it’s chemistry that makes the best tandems work. Just take a quick glance at Dr. Evil and Five-Time, if you’re in any doubt. The knowledge, trust and accumulated years of racing enable the two to communicate more smoothly and more efficiently. Osborne and Edwards have that and from that point great things can happen. In Edwards’ 2005 rookie season it very nearly did, and in 2008 Edwards ran Jimmie Johnson right to the bitter end – winning a staggering nine races on the year (that’s a whole lot of backflips) including three of the final four Chase races. In 2011 (weird how it’s every three years) Edwards is poised to run all the way to the end, once again. Not that the driver will admit it, or even countenance the fact that he’s the most popular pick to unseat the Champ. When asked prior to Pocono as to who might win it all, Edwards recognized there are many races to be run. “I think it is too early yet,” said Edwards. “I think that this season you have had enough surprise winners to prove to me it is possible to have a surprise champion.”
After his 37th place effort at the Tricky Triangle, Edwards saw his healthy 40 point lead reduced to just six (over yes, that man Jimmie Johnson) but given his form there’s no logical reason to suspect he’ll have an epic collapse. Could it happen? Of course. Will it? Not if I was laying money on it. So while a rejuvenated Edwards looks to continue his fantastic start to the year, and onward to the Chase, there’s just one issue outstanding: his contract. After running all 243 of his Cup races under Jack Roush, Edwards is yet to ink a new deal with Roush Fenway Racing. That’s not to say he won’t, but until he puts pen to paper, especially in a sport that changes as quickly as NASCAR, there are no guarantees. It is, of course, very likely he will re-sign with the Cat in the Hat but you never know. You just never know.
So, as we head into the summer stretch and the first race of the Chase gets ever closer, Cousin Carl is sitting pretty. With a great team, a pit crew that’s performing with distinction, a crew chief he knows and trusts implicitly, an ability to win races in the Chase–not to mention great engines and cars from his team–Edwards might just be the driver to unseat the unstoppable Johnson. No matter what though, the teetotaler Edwards will keep smiling – he’s had a lot of reasons to flash that famous grin so far this year. I expect it to continue all the way to Homestead.
*And finally,* since I like to mention Formula One from time to time, if you get a chance, definitely check out the highlights from the Canadian F1 Grand Prix at the picturesque Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in beautiful Montreal. After dominating the first six races of the season (winning five and finishing second in the other), current champion Sebastian Vettel was pipped right at the end by 2009 Champion Jenson Button. Not only did Button overcome five separate pit stops and a drive through penalty, but he also drove from 21st (which was last place at the time) to win on the final lap when he forced a mistake from the usually implacable German. In F1 terms, where passing – even this season – is still at something of a premium, this was a tremendous effort from my fellow Brit.
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