A year ago at this time, Carl Edwards was leading the Sprint Cup standings, and by a fairly comfortable margin, going into the 14th race of the season at Pocono Raceway. As the Sprint Cup Series gets set for this year's Pocono 400 on Sunday, the runner-up in the 2011 Sprint Cup championship finds himself 96 points back of the leader and in 12th place in the drivers' standings.
What makes it even harder for Edwards to take is that he is the third best on his Roush-Fenway Racing team this season. Teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth hold down first and second-place, respectively, in the current standings, with only a point separating the two.
If the NASCAR Chase for the Cup championship round started today, Edwards' No, 99 Ford would not be among the top ten automatic qualifiers, and he wouldn't earn a wild card spot either because he has no wins in 2012 to this point. Although they probably would never admit, Edwards and his race team have to be a little concerned, if for no other reason than when 32-year-old Missouri native, from Columbia, Mo. finished second in the 2008 Sprint Cup championship, he failed to qualify for the Chase the following year and did not win a race the entire season.
It has been 46 races since Edwards last won a Sprint Cup race (Las Vegas, the third race in 2011), and with nothing better than two fifth-place finishes so far this season, you can see the frustration mounting on the driver himself as well as the Edwards race crew.
"It's tough," Edwards said this week. "There's a lot on the line, and it's so competitive right now. If you look at our 99 team and our situation, our teammates (Biffle and Kenseth) are leading, one and two. We're outside of the Chase right now, and it's not because we haven't run as well as those guys. Luck (or the lack thereof) has been a big factor, but we haven't been able to pull it together.
"We have to run well, so the pressure is on," which is the way Edwards says he likes it. But if the No. 99 car doesn't start running better and if Edwards has some more bad races, it could get a lot uglier before it gets better.
Perhaps this is the week the native Missourian's luck begins to turn around. He will start second in Sunday's Cup race at Pocono, the second time he has done so this season. The other time was a little over a month ago at Richmond International Raceway in the Capital City 400. The No. 99 car finished 10th in that race. Edwards was on the pole for the season-opening race at Daytona, where he finished eighth.
"I feel like I'm up here making excuses," Edwards said in a press briefing at Pocono earlier in the week, "but the reality is we had the (cut) tire at Dover, the fuel at Phoenix, the wreck at Talladega and the wreck at Bristol. That's a lot of points. Hopefully, we can kind of use all that bad luck and still make the Chase and turn it around.
"If I felt there was a hangover from last year, or we were down and out because we didn't win, I'd tell you guys that we have to get our game faces on. But we really are, I think, doing a good job," he said. "It's just plain bad luck. At the same time, we still have to run better, but I don't feel it's because of last year."
If ever there was a better track to start getting some of that good luck going Edwards' way, Pocono would be the place. Edwards has two wins and five top fives at Pocono Raceway in 14 starts in the Eastern Pennsylvania mountains. But then there was also last year, when Edwards started sixth at this race track, and at the end of the day found himself in 37th place. But that was last year, and Edwards has already said he's not thinking about what happened last season.
So while there may be a sense of urgency in the No. 99 car's garage, that should not be confused with a state of panic.
"There's not any reason for panic," said Roush-Fenway owner Jack Roush. "We made some minor personnel changes that I'm very happy with over the winter. It doens't surprise me that we are where we are with the 99. But it is unusual, and I'm sure it will rectify itself (before the season is over)," he said.
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