A year ago at this time, Carl Edwards was leading in the drivers' points and on his way to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in his fifth consecutive Chase for the Cup playoffs appearance. The Columbia, Mo., native finished in the runner-up spot losing the title to Tony Stewart on the last lap of the final race of the season last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Edwards' high finish in 2011 was the result of remarkable consistency over the course of the 36 Sprint Cup races, despite winning only one time all of last season. Out of the 36 races in 2011, Edwards' No. 99 Roush-Fenway Ford finished in the top-10 26 times and 19 of those among the top five. And he led for most of the Chase until right up to the disappointing end.
Because of that, Edwards was considered one of the favorites coming into this season, and he was brimming with high hopes and chomping at the bit to get back on the racetrack after just missing out on the big prize in 2011.
Only 2012 has not been like 2011 for Edwards and his Roush-Fenway team. He started out the season fairly well, with two top-fives in the first five races. Since then, however, the native Missourian has finished among the top five only one time and in the top 10 only 13 times all season, half as many as the year before. Edwards' last win in the Sprint Cup Series was 66 races ago (99 upside down, a member of his Rough-Fenway crew astutely pointed out), dating back to March 2011 at Las Vegas Speedway in the third race of the season.
Edwards has led only 254 laps in Cup races this year, and 206 of those were at one track: Richmond back in late April.
For a driver who has finished outside of the top 10 in the final standings only once in the past five years, including coming in second in total points twice (2008 and 2011), this year has been extremely disappointing. Edwards is currently 14th in points, which is the lowest he has been in the driver standings at this point in the season since his first year in NASCAR's top racing series in 2004. He only started 13 Cup races that season, which put him far back in the field at 37th in points.
"Last year was the most exciting year of racing I've ever had," Edwards said last week in preparation for the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the seventh race in this season's 10-event Chase for the Cup championship round. "Those last few races were really, really fun. I'd like to have that shot every year.
"It's really neat to have a goal, to have it right there within reach to where you wake up every morning thinking about it and going to bed every night thinking about it," he said.
Edwards and team owner Jack Roush, for whom Edwards has been driving for the past nine years, have been scratching their heads all this season trying to find out why the No. 99 car has underperformed so badly and experienced so many mechanical and on-the-track issues and take steps to correct them. .
"There are a number of reasons," Edwards said. "We did a spreadsheet on the way the first 26 races (went), and 54 percent of the races we had some sort of wreck or (engine) failure or some trouble. That's about twice we've ever had every year before that. That's part of it, but we need to run better, too."
Another factor that Edwards did not mention, but definitely has had an impact on the performance of Edwards and the 99 cart the past couple of months, has been the absence of crew chief Bob Osborne, who left the team in July for health reasons.
Despite all that has happened this year, Edwards remains enthusiastic with an outlook that can only be described as a glass-half-full attitude. He knows that it's not all going to come back at once.
"The short-term thing is win a race or two," he said. "Mid-term is to build the best team, so that long term we can be competitive. We've just got to get it together. This is a performance business, and we've got to perform."
Something tells me, we'll be seeing Edwards and the No. 99 Roush-Fenway Ford back on top and in victory lane very soon. They'll be back at it this weekend at one-mile Phoenix International Raceway in the AdvoCare 500, Chase race No. 9.
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