In every Sprint Cup race, 43 drivers come roaring to take the green. On every Sunday night, hours after the checkered 42 of them lay awake, fighting off sleep and daydreaming through every moment, every turn they could have handled differently to take a trip to Victory Lane.
“I’m going to lay in bed,” said Carl Edwards, giving his best looking-at-the-ceiling impression after running third. “My wife’s going to yell at me and tell me to get over it. That’s just how it goes. That’s how racing is.”
Maybe, but nowhere does disappointment run deeper in the NASCAR garages than with Edwards and Jimmie Johnson this Monday. Combined, they led 273 of the race’s 400 laps at the Monster Mile. At different points, each had upwards of a three-second lead on the rest of the field, beating their competitors into submission with ease. Yet when the checkered flag flew, they wound up second and third, respectively, their own victims of self-inflicted mistakes that kept a big boost of Chase momentum landing squarely in their lap.
To their credit, both drivers hid it well, even joking during a post-race press conference that was all about How To Shoot Yourself In The Foot 101.
“If I was Carl,” joked Johnson at one point. “I wouldn’t get over [his] mistake. I maybe wouldn’t show up next week.”
“I think if I were Jimmie,” responded Edwards, “I would be so frustrated I gave up that win. He had a perfect day. It would probably bother me all week.”
Underneath the protection of laughter, though both are clearly hurting, ready to toss and turn this week after giving the trophy away. For Edwards, his nightmare will be clicking that tachometer just a bit too high on pit road. Falling back in traffic during the middle of the race, a victim of others’ two-tire strategy the No. 99 was left behind Johnson, stuck in track position hell and looking to his crew to give a boost. They did, at a price; perhaps overexcited after a fast stop, the Aflac Ford came barreling off pit road too quickly, drawing a penalty and track position killer that ended any chances for Victory Lane on the spot.
“That’s about as small as you can feel in a race car,” he said. “We looked at the pit road speeding lines [before the race] and that last line, Bob and I actually discussed the last section. It’s 25 feet, eight inches long, and we talked about that run and how I was not going to speed through it… and I just blasted right through it.”
The surge back to third, which Edwards called a “gift from God” “in an interview with ESPN’s Marty Smith”:http://www.twitter.com/MartySmithESPN/ included a free pass, several two-tire stops and outright passing on a track that was nearly impossible to do so Sunday. Still, you can’t help but think in a season with only one victory – Edwards has actually gone winless since Las Vegas in March, a span of 26 events – those five points were crucial to leave on the table. Instead of taking the points lead outright, he’s sitting there tied with Kevin Harvick, leaving rivals like Jeff Gordon feeling like they gained ground on a day they should have lost it. And while Kansas is a good track for the No. 99, along with Charlotte the week after that, you only can put yourself in position to win so many times, only to lose before it gets under your skin.
Of course, five points pales in comparison to what we’ve seen from Jimmie Johnson the first three races. After Edwards was down for the count, the No. 48 looked to be on cruise control for most of the race’s second half. With fuel mileage knocked out of the equation, following a yellow with 90 laps left it seemed like Lowe’s decided to name the wrong speedway all those years ago – a seventh win for Johnson at Dover appeared a mere formality.
But then Mike Bliss pushed a little too hard, wrecked off Turn 2 with 47 laps to go, and the game wound up changing for good. On that restart, along with the race’s final caution moments later, Johnson goofed getting up to speed when it mattered most.
“I blew it by spinning the tires,” he admitted. “I didn’t time it right. Not getting the restart I needed today, that’s on me and no one else.”
Falling back to second, dreaded aerodynamics and parity kicked in. Johnson could do little but fall in line behind Busch the rest of the way. Second really was the first loser, especially when the four-point difference could have launched Johnson from fifth up to a tie for third in the standings.
But the difference in a victory here is more than just mathematical for Johnson: it’s mental. For the last few seasons, these Fall Dover victories have established he’s clearly the man to beat. It’s like hypnotizing the competition, having them mentally prepared the No. 48 is going to surge no matter where he is in the standings and be ahead of them come Homestead. But now? Kurt Busch, who said the word “arch-nemesis” Sunday more than the villain in that cartoon your kids watch on _Nickelodeon_ has the confidence he can beat Johnson one-on-one. This team, which has had five victories or more during each year they’ve won the Chase have seven races left to increase their current total of … one.
Perhaps most notable of all, an organization known for salvaging tough situations has made a habit of leaving points on the table during this Chase. Second instead of first at Dover? We’ll start with four. Tenth instead of third at Chicagoland, running out of gas on the final lap? That’s seven more. And the New Hampshire debacle of last week, where Kyle Busch contact negated a likely top-10 finish adds up to about another eight. Add up that total of 19, and bingo! It’s the No. 48 that could be easily leading the standings right now by six – the title that’s quickly becoming rather difficult to achieve.
Surely, every team is full of “would haves, could haves, and should haves” throughout a season where you can only win so many times. But when you’re talking about this Chase, termed “slippery” by Kurt Busch it only takes a handful of small mistakes for this Championship to slip away.
“I look at it and say we left points on the table,” said Johnson after his first three races. “New Hampshire, for sure – all three of them, absolutely, without a doubt. This Chase is so tough to know what it’s going to take, and I just – we look at the [No.] 14 car (who slumped to 25th), what he did in the first two races and then the struggles they had today. I think it speaks to how tough these ten races are going to be and how you think somebody is on fire and the fire can go out.”
“So, we’ll just keep fighting hard. I hate leaving points on the table, and we have these first three.”
Edwards also found himself waxing poetic, looking to a book for inspiration when opening the final chapters of his 2011 Chase novella.
“Someone wrote a long time ago you don’t experience success by being the guy that does everything perfect,” he explained. “You succeed by being the guy that minimizes mistakes. We are going to think about what we did wrong and try not to do it again.”
Chances are, neither one will, established NASCAR superstars in their own right. But in what’s shaping up to be the most competitive Chase in history, chances are come Homestead mistakes as small as these could be enough to tip those title scales towards somebody else.