It was the Fall of 2008, and carnage ran rampant over the Talladega racetrack – as the Big One tends to do – with a finger of blame landing squarely on Carl Edwards. The awkward-timed bump, spinning teammate Greg Biffle around took out a dozen cars and all but giftwrapped the Chase for the Championship to the burgeoning Five-Time dynasty that back then went by the name “Jimmie Johnson.”
“I was just pushing Greg as hard as I could. It’s my fault and I apologize to everybody caught up in that wreck,” he explained, hopes and dreams evaporating through the words “I’m sorry.” “We had been pushing each other a lot and it had been going really well. We just got in exactly the wrong spot there going into three and he got real loose and that was just the way it went. It’s my fault. I feel bad that I took my teammates out. I know Matt [Kenseth]’s mad and I’m sure Greg’s mad, but you just do the best you can and hope for the best. It just didn’t work out today. I was worried about the idiots when you come here and I was the guy that caused that one.”
Remorse can be a remarkable quality, for certain but never earns you extra points towards winning that championship trophy. One week later, Edwards got into a tussle with Kevin Harvick inside Charlotte’s garage, public apologies boiling over into internal frustration and the title, for all intents and purposes, was lost.
It was the Spring of 2009 at ‘Dega, and Carl Edwards was looking to right the ship. A too little, too late rally had left him runner-up to Johnson last season; but ever since, the No. 99 team had run around the track like a lost puppy. Eighth in points through eight races, Edwards looked a shell of his former self until jumping out front with Brad Keselowski to start Talladega’s most infamous white flag lap. Charging off Turn 4, with less than a 1,000 feet to victory all that he needed was to block Keselowski’s run behind him at the right time.
Edwards missed. Mere seconds later, the No. 99 was flipping towards the catchfence, injuring seven fans with debris and leaving its driver lucky to emerge without a scratch.
“That’s a feeling I’ve never had before and I never want to have again,” he explained back then, easily the most frightening wreck of his career to date. “It was a real eye-opener as to how serious this can be. We race cars, and we all wreck and we know we can get hurt … that’s something we all accept. But I don’t think part of my job is people in the grandstands getting hurt.”
Physically, the recovery was instantaneous; he Ricky Bobby’d over the start/finish line that day by foot while the fans gave a standing ovation. But ultimately, the mental anguish took its toll; that was the closest he’d come in a winless season, poor luck combined with awkward-handling chassis to leave him a distant 11th in the Chase.
2010 was a nondescript performance for Edwards at ‘Dega: 11th in the Spring, 17th in the Fall where a win was the only way he’d have a shot at catching Johnson. In fact, during fifteen career Talladega starts, Edwards has zero victories and just one top-5 result; his 20.3 average finish there is a career worst for any Sprint Cup facility. Never a fan of plate racing, it’s clear plate racing is not a fan of Carl Edwards – he’s finished less than 50% of those Talladega events. Survival, in the form of simply not losing points would have been cause for celebration in the Edwards camp this weekend.
Which brings us to this crisp Talladega Sunday in 2011. Three years removed from the Big One, personified Edwards is 32 years old, the occasional off-track temper outburst replaced by tolerance, fatherhood (two kids) and the maturity of titles lost. In the two-car drafting system, none other than Biffle was picked to be Edwards’ partner; but in the midst of an ugly, late-race scramble he let someone else be the idiot. One by one, his rivals – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch – left the race as innocent victims while Edwards raced safely, smartly near the back of the lead lap until the timing was right.
“We did it perfectly,” he proclaimed after the race. “It worked out great.”
That strategy worked awfully for rival Johnson, who sat helplessly with partner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as they failed to gain track position over the final laps. Edwards, in theory should have been in the same boat when the race restarted for the final time with two laps left; after all, he had spent most of the first 450 miles riding comfortably outside the top 20. But that Greg Biffle – yes, the same Biffle whose Cinderella slipper Edwards ruined here, three years ago – was ready and waiting to give a teammate the boost he needed.
“I cannot believe how much Greg helped us today,” Edwards said. “I owe him a lot. Greg stuck with me all day. The last lap, he was driving my car from back there. We got separated. He was screaming, Go, go, go. Then somehow he found me again, pushed us back up through there a little bit.”
That “little bit” was a lot as far as the new NASCAR points system was concerned. While Matt Kenseth lost his drafting partner, Johnson fought the track position demon _again_ and Tony Stewart never had the full-bodied partner he needed, Edwards’ 11th-place finish was enough to expand his point lead to 14. At a track known for his historical collapses, the veteran had done what was previously unthinkable: make the 2.66-mile superspeedway one of his _better_ Chase performances.
No wonder the man was acting like he won the race.
“If I had it to do to do over again, I would do it exactly the same,” Edwards explained in his presser. “At the end of the day we had a shot at it. Our car was intact. We could drive up there. That was our mission.”
For today. In actuality, the mission is much bigger, yet more than attainable; there’s just one pothole left on the road to a title that may now be Edwards’ to lose. After Martinsville, we head to Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead, all tracks where the No. 99 has not just led but dominated races in the recent past. Johnson sits 50 points out, helpless to close in as the dynasty reaches its inevitable conclusion. No wonder why in his postrace interview, the current point leader sounded like the title was so close he could taste it.
What a difference three years makes.
“2008 we came in here, and I was ultimately frustrated with myself for taking myself out at this race,” Edwards reminisced. “That was my first goal [today], not to take myself out. I was prepared to lose the points lead, but I wasn’t going to accept making a mistake and losing control of my car.”
For once, Edwards came to Talladega at a crucial time and left the speedway not making a mistake. And in a 2011 point race defined by who makes the fewest, this Sunday could very well turn into a championship-defining moment.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.