Edwards lands it again at Atlanta

He becomes the first driver since 1992 to sweep both Georgia races and makes up ground in the Chase race.

Published October 31, 2005

HAMPTON, Ga. - Race-weary legs nearly failed him this spring at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Then a cheerful 25-year-old finding his way in his 17th Nextel Cup race, Carl Edwards had chased down Jimmie Johnson, one of the sport's top drivers, to pass on the final turn for his first victory at NASCAR's highest level. His traditional backflip off the door of his car looked more like an exercise in survival, his expression more shock than celebration.

On Sunday, everything was different, everything but the result, that is. When Edwards, now 26, climbed from his No.99 Ford at the finish line after winning the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, he absolutely stuck the landing. It was a confident, bold finish to a dominating effort by a driver who in the seven months since that first win has proved he truly belongs.

He now has three wins in 46 Nextel Cup starts, 11 top-10s and a rookie of the year award waiting if Roush Racing had not burned up his eligibility by racing him 13 times last year.

He shocked the series by qualifying for the Chase for the Championship in his first full Cup season. And Edwards, still as jovial as ever, may have back-flipped himself back into title contention on Sunday. At 107 points behind leader Tony Stewart, he needs a perfect storm of events to pull off the next once-unthinkable thing before him. But he's having too much fun, too young, he said, and with absolutely no pressure on him, he's pretty dangerous right now. And pretty fun to watch, even in the rearview mirror.

"He's not one of those kids who is going to give up," said Stewart, who finished ninth.

And who could really doubt Edwards anything in a year like this? A kid who supported himself by substitute teaching back home in Columbia, Mo., and pitched himself relentlessly with cold calls and business cards before being signed by Roush Racing in 2003, has seen his life turn upside down since that first Atlanta win. He used to share a place with buddies. Now he has a large house. He used to drive around in an old Ford pickup truck. He just bought a plane - a very small one - but it's his. Oh, and he dates Olympic swimmer and cover girl Amanda Beard.

"To be honest with you, everything in my life for the last three years has been icing on the cake and that's the truth," Edwards said.

Edwards won by 2.712 seconds over Jeff Gordon, who was followed by Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. Edwards led eight times for 115 laps, including 83 of the last 84.

Stewart's finish increased his points lead from 15 to 43 over Johnson, who was competitive early but faded to finish 16th. Greg Biffle (seventh on Sunday) gained a spot to third and is 75 points back. Edwards jumped a spot to fourth. Ryan Newman dropped two spots to fifth after finishing 23rd, also 107 back, but yielded fourth to Edwards because he has three wins to Newman's one.

"We did what we needed to do - gain some points," said Stewart, the 2002 series champion. "Forty-three points with three races to go is not a cake walk by any means, but it gives you some breathing room. We're closing this down."

The race eased into a typical Atlanta pattern from the start. One driver, in this case Martin, ran off to an early lead and kept it as the field strung out during a long green flag run. Edwards started second but was not as strong initially as Martin and Earnhardt, who led a race-high 142 laps.

Martin had led 32 laps when a caution flew on Lap 51, but was sent to the back of the longest line on the restart after speeding on pit road on the ensuing stop. Restarting 30th, Martin had such a strong car he was able to plow back though the field and into the top-10 by midrace.

Edwards, using some "trick" or valuable data he would not divulge, hovered near the leaders most of the race and led his first substantial chunk from Laps 209-229.

He led another 47-lap segment later, building a 7.7-second lead on Gordon by Lap 282 before the last of nine cautions brought him back to the field. He restarted first on Lap 288, and after swapping the lead with Kenseth, he reassumed control for the final 36 laps.

Edwards could be excused for finally feeling a little pressure, or at least being a little struck by what he is doing. If he is, the confident but cheerful veneer is hiding it.

"I don't feel any pressure," Edwards said.

"We're having a good time. Nobody expects us to be here. Nobody expects us to win the championship. We're going to give it our best and see what happens."

Maybe turn the whole thing upside down.