The Missourian has been a positive force in the garage while winning twice and qualifying for the 10-race playoff.
By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published October 9, 2005
There are those within the Nextel Cup garage watching Carl Edwards with great anticipation. And there are many reasons to keep track of this effervescent young man from Missouri.
He qualified for the Chase for the Championship in his first full season in Nextel Cup.
Edwards entered the 10-race playoffs ninth in points, and after early struggles at New Hampshire, he was ninth at Dover and a surprising fifth last week at Talladega, where his first two starts were forgettable. Now he's sixth in the standings, 100 points behind leader Tony Stewart entering today's race at Kansas Speedway.
At 26, a graduate of the NASCAR Truck series and a full-time racer in the Busch series, he has won two Nextel Cup races in 42 starts, both celebrated with his customary back flip off the door of his car.
Amid that full schedule and accompanying pressure, Edwards manages to stay near the top in the intangible niceness category.
So the prevalent question is not "When will Carl win a title?" but "When is Carl going to change?"
Though the heat of racing finally has coerced some disparaging words out of angry competitors - Jamie McMurray said, "I have heard in the garage that he has a lot of enemies" before the final regular-season race at Richmond - he seems to be changing his peers more than the other way around.
Witness Jack Roush, still a businesslike task manager but often dour in his view of his fortunes after 18 years in NASCAR's top series. Winning consecutive driver championships with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch has softened his hard look at fate and lightened his mood somewhat, but the 63-year-old team owner often acts like a silly school boy when Edwards is in the room.
During an otherwise mundane preseason news conference announcing a new associate sponsor for Edwards' No.99 Ford, Roush surprised the media and PR types by swatting Edwards vigorously on the butt as he prepared to make his remarks.
The punch line no one knew was Edwards had followed through on a dare with his crewmates by thumping Roush on the backside during the filming of a television commercial earlier in the week.
"Jack is really a cool guy. He's wild, man. He's really fun to goof around with. He has a great sense of humor, but you just have to prod him a little bit, and he'll cut loose," Edwards said. "I (slapped him) and the camera was rolling, and Jack looked at me like "What in the hell are you doing?' It was hilarious."
Said Roush of Edwards' enthusiasm: "It's contagious."
The trick for Edwards is keeping his good humor while dealing with expectations. He ran well when he replaced Jeff Burton at Roush last season. Edwards was third at the Atlanta fall race and had five top 10s in 13 races. That could have been seen as the energy of a talented young driver temporarily invigorating a stale team. But when he chased down two-time series runnerup Jimmie Johnson to win the Atlanta spring race by 0.028 seconds, he coined himself a weekly player. That weekend, Edwards became the 11th driver to win in NASCAR's three top series and the first to capture his first Busch and Cup victories on the same weekend. He won again at Pocono and has nine top fives and 12 top 10s in 29 races.
"Our performance this year was not at all what we expected. It's what we hoped for," Edwards said. "After that first win at Atlanta, everything kind of changed. It went from, "Wow, we'd be super happy to run in the top five' to, "Man, winning felt awfully good, we'd like to do it again every week.'
"The perspective has changed, the expectation has changed. Overall, this season has been one of just achieving, you know, dreams: the dream of winning the Nextel Cup race, the dream of being in the Chase. I don't think the word "expectation' was really anywhere in there. We hoped for this, and now we kind of raised the bar for ourselves."