Carl Edwards entered Charlotte buried under the weight of high expectations. Adding mental pounds of his own pressure simply left him digging a deeper hole through Sunday’s first 500 miles. A Sprint Cup veteran and former championship contender found himself struggling at Charlotte, like most weeks this season just hoping to escape with a top-10 finish.
Boy, what a difference those extra 100 miles can make.
NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 turned into a sudden resurrection down the stretch. Your end result? A season unexpectedly salvaged for a driver in Edwards who’s spent most of it shoveling dirt. Manning a new fourth team for Joe Gibbs Racing, most were thinking his No. 19 car would charge out of the blocks and match the performance of teammate Matt Kenseth when joining the sport’s top Toyota organization two years ago. Kenseth, eager to prove himself through his first 11 races with JGR immediately rose to the top of their driving trio. Three victories, two poles, and a third-place position in the point standings was a nice resume builder, indeed to throw back in the face of former employer Roush Fenway Racing. In fact, it was his quick chemistry in joining this program that became a catalyst for Edwards to make a similar move, leaving RFR to hop on the bandwagon.
Up until the waning moments Sunday, that choice had done little to advance his career. Chemistry has been slow to develop with crew chief Darian Grubb, a man who once snuck past Edwards in eking out the 2011 Cup title with Tony Stewart. JGR itself, a team that has struggled with the fresh faces of expansion in the past (see: 2005, Jason Leffler) had the added burden of being three steps behind its Chevy rivals to start the season. That meant their newest edition, after a strong run turned sour at Daytona peaked with a tenth — just a singular tenth-place result — through this year’s first 11 races. Edwards, hoping to earn an early victory could instead do no better than the RFR organization he left behind; Greg Biffle, his teammate-turned-rival also had one tenth-place finish as the two floated squarely around the Chase “bubble” position of 16th in points.
It was a touch ironic, then that as the laps wound down at Charlotte it was Biffle becoming the biggest roadblock to Edwards suddenly stealing a victory. Grubb, realizing the finish might come down to fuel mileage topped his team’s car off during the race’s final caution on Lap 339. That left Edwards, along with Biffle and several others in position to stretch to the finish while the fast cars up front needed one more stop. So Martin Truex, Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and others darted down pit road, clearing the way for Edwards-Biffle to run 1-2 for the final 21 laps of the race.
“That’s great when those guys pull off the racetrack and you don’t have to stop,” Edwards exclaimed after it was all over. “One of Darian’s strengths on the box is that he seems to be very calculated and whenever there’s an opportunity, he makes the most [of it].”
That ball was now in the driver’s court, but it’s a dance Edwards knows all too well, winning on several intermediates on strategy throughout his career. During the 2008 Chase, he once won two consecutive races on fuel mileage while putting the heat on Jimmie Johnson heading to Homestead. This time, soft-pedaling it home would remove a different type of heat, the dangerous one that can burn down bridges within a fledgling team before they ever build themselves a firm foundation.
You could see the sizable impact the second he nursed the car to the checkered, edging Biffle who had run out of gas in the final two laps. You could feel emotions soar in the roar of the crowd that rallied behind both the backflip and the run up the frontstretch grandstands. You could hear the stress melt second he opened his mouth, treating the post-race presser like a celebration instead of a canned set of answers drivers give when the win doesn’t mean that much.
“This one feels different. It’s a big relief,” he said at the podium, still shocked over career victory 24. “It’s a huge opportunity to now take a deep breath, step back and work on all the little things we need to work on to be a championship-caliber team.”
That’s how it goes in a new Chase format which, depending on how you look at it could either be a blessing or a curse. Unlike in baseball, where fans know by now that a handful of teams are “out of the playoff race” with four-plus months still to go most NASCAR programs are are always small step away from sneaking in. A fuel mileage strategy like Edwards Sunday night could propel anyone from a struggling Tony Stewart to a serious underdog like Justin Allgaier into victory lane under the right circumstances. With the new rules, that’s all you need and suddenly a program goes from “mediocre” to “making it” before you blink an eye.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you’re a lot better off to go to the race in the position we’re going to go now,” Edwards added. “We can focus on being the best team we can be in those final ten races. I can let Darian and these guys work on what they’re good at, making the cars better and figuring out the communication, instead of trying to fight and claw for a points position or a win. That’s what we need.”
Therein lies the curse, a Chase that punches playoff bids for its “Fall Classic” before the leaves even appear on the trees. With so much time between now and September, a team like Edwards will gladly use the next 14 races as little more than a glorified test session. In order to catch up to rivals, building the consistency and speed to be a factor in the postseason there’s simply no other choice. Who cares, now if they bomb at a certain track and run quietly passive in 25th? The team is in the Chase and will finish inside the top 30 parameters no problem. As long as a bizarre miracle, like 17 or more winners in 26 regular season races come to pass the only thing Edwards is worrying about passing next is not a car; just a test of internal improvement. The goals change instantaneously after a win, as this team must now plan for the playoffs instead of spending all its time clawing desperately to earn a bid.
For Edwards, now the hard part is over; a career change to JGR was justified through a few extra gallons of gas. That was enough to power him through, leaving his former RFR team likely out of luck this season after a rare opportunity to steal one got thrown on the table. Edwards, paired up with his new team is heading in the right direction; a decade ago, that would mean a slow build toward next season.
Now? For all we know, Edwards has gone from the outskirts to in strong position to be holding that championship trophy at Homestead. He has as much right to claim that’s part of his future as “top seed” Johnson does with three wins, the perfect way to put a clamp on criticism surrounding his career choices. No better way than to earn patience, gain respect and get people to shut their mouths than holding up a trophy from victory lane.
Yes, what a difference those extra 100 miles can make.