A friend of mine attended the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway this past Sunday. For the majority of the race, she listened to Carl Edwards’ radio chatter as he struggled his way with a real pig of a car to what was ultimately an excellent, and completely unexpected fifth-place finish. What impressed my friend was the upbeat and calm nature of the communications between head wrench Bob Osborne and his eight-year, 258-race veteran driver; how Edwards and team never once gave up despite a car that was very much out to lunch for most of the 400-mile race.
The result was enough to ensure Edwards remained atop the points standings, four races into the ten-race Chase, albeit by a mere point from second-place Kevin Harvick and just four ahead of the dominant race winner (oh, and lest we forget five-time champion) Jimmie Johnson in third. Five other drivers also remain within a very accessible 20 points of the lead: Brad Keselowski (-11 points), 2003 and last traditional points champion Matt Kenseth (-12 points), 2004 and inaugural Chase champion Kurt Busch (-16 points), two-time champion Tony Stewart (-19 points) and everybody’s tip to “one day win a championship” Kyle Busch (-20 points).
Plenty can and probably will happen in the course of the next six races, twists and turns we can’t begin to imagine — not the least of which on the big, bad high banks of Talladega. I’m not trying to overdramatize here, or sound like an ESPN commercial, I’m just emphasizing the point that 2011 has been a wildly unpredictable year right from the moment Trevor Bayne – in just his second ever Cup race – drove to a remarkable Daytona 500 victory.
The top-5 effort at Kansas gives Edwards a solid and consistent start to the 2011 Chase, following a fourth-place run in the opener at Chicagoland (39 laps led), an eighth-place effort at Loudon and a strong third-place performance at the Monster Mile last weekend (116 laps led).
“I feel like I won the race. I thought we’d be lucky to finish 20th,” said Edwards post-race, who at one point was two laps down under green-flag racing. “I can’t believe we finished fifth.”
And it’s results like last Sunday that Edwards, head wrench Bob Osborne and the entire No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team needs if they are to topple NASCAR’s own emperor Jimmie Johnson.
One of the key differentiators with the new points system this season is that bad days have a much more dramatic effect in the standings. The key to this year’s Chase, and even more so than in the last seven years of the format is minimizing the bad days. The drivers that can wrestle top-5 finishes from ill-handling cars through a combination of strategy, pit calls and good fortune will be the drivers who will remain in contention by the time we hit the new surface at Phoenix for race number 35 of 36 in 2011.
Had Edwards actually finished 20th, he would be level with Kurt Busch 15 points – or 15 positions on the track – behind leader Kevin Harvick. While this is not an insurmountable deficit by any stretch of the imagination, it would have put Edwards in a very different frame of mind headed into Charlotte where he finished sixteenth back in May but led 61 early laps.
Now the good news is the Roush Fenway cars all ran well in the Coca-Cola 600, without really backing their form up with finishes — save the second-place run for David Ragan). But you get my point. In the 2011 version of the Chase, bad days can become catastrophic in a heartbeat. Just ask Jeff Gordon, who languishes some 47 points back in tenth place – four points adrift of ninth-place driver and fellow Hendrick Motorsports star, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. following a disastrous afternoon at Kansas.
Edwards has been down this road before – most notably in 2008, when he had nine victories on the season. But three wins in the final four races were not enough to overcome two bad finishes in a row (Talladega and Charlotte). After a poor season in 2009 – the same finishing second to Jimmie Johnson hangover effect Denny Hamlin has suffered throughout 2011 – Edwards bounced back to finish fourth in 2010 after a slow start to the year. A pair of late wins and more speed for the Roush Fenway team as a whole has propelled Edwards throughout a solid bounceback year and to a level of consistency that wins championships.
Jimmie Johnson may have reminded everyone why he’s the champion this past weekend, but Carl Edwards is once again knocking on the door.
“There was certainly a lot of luck involved there,” admitted Edwards post-race. “Man, I wanted to win for these home fans at Kansas, but this is like getting a win considering how it looked like it could have been.”
Back to my friend and the radio chatter once more; turns out there was a friendly side wager with fellow local Clint Bowyer on the results of the race. Bowyer, who ran strongly all day and for the most part well ahead of Edwards, finished seventh. Edwards was the one who faced adversity; but the veteran was also was able to overcome it.
That bodes well for his future.
One final point: I doubt Kasey Kahne’s season (and team) best second-place finish raised so much as a blip on the Red Bull HQ radar this weekend, especially with Sebastian Vettel’s back-to-back Formula One World Championship victory with four of the 19 races still to run. The young German’s statistics on the season are like something from a Hollywood plot. In 15 races he’s won nine, come home second four times and finished third and fourth in the other two. He’s lead 598 of 892 laps and has picked up 12 pole positions.
On the flip side, though, Kahne’s fine form, plus solid runs from Brian Vickers show that the nuts and bolts of Red Bull Racing are very much alive and kicking. Here’s hoping someone steps up, takes over and saves the many jobs that are currently on the line.
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