Carl Edwards came about as close as you can come last season to winning his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship without actually taking home the trophy. Instead of falling into a state of denial followed by total emotional devastation - as a good number of his race-driver contemporaries might have - after losing out to Tony Stewart by virtue of a tiebreaker, Edwards rededicated himself to learning from his shortcomings in 2011 and couldn't hardly wait to get his racing gear on and get after it again, long before the new season got under way a month ago
The Columbia, Mo., native lost out to Stewart, who put on one of the most remarkable charges since the introduction of the Chase for the Cup championship format, winning an unequaled five of the 10 Chase races, because he won more races during the season than Edwards to steal away the championship. Edwards had led the drivers' standing for much of the season and all the way through the Chase for the Cup until the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
What would have made it even more difficult for Edwards to swallow, under normal circumstances, was that the 32-year-old 11-year NASCAR veteran enjoyed a career year of his own in 2011. In 36 races (26 in the regular season and 10 in the Chase for the Cup), Edwards had 19 top-five finishes and 26 top-10s and finished every single race during the season. He also won three poles. But even after averaging a top-10 finish for the entire season, the native Missourian garnered just one checkered flag.
Edwards had a similar season in 2008, when he finished second in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship to Jimmie Johnson, the second of Johnson's record-setting five consecutive Cup championships. The driver of the No. 99 Roush-Fenway Ford also captured 19 top-five finishes that year but, unlike last season, he also outran the Sprint Cup field to the finish line nine times.
Edwards has cut back his race schedule this season, deciding not to compete in this season in the developmental, lower-tier Nationwide Series. His plan is that the time gained will relieve some of the extra stress of competing in two major races the same weekend and, most importantly, enable him to devote his full energies and efforts to doing well in the Sprint Cup events.
The 33-year-old Edwards hasn't gotten off to as good a start as last year, when he delivered two seconds, a sixth-place finish and a race win (Las Vegas) in his first five races, he is not terribly off the pace. By comparison, Edwards has posted two top-five finishes so far in 2012, including his fifth place last weekend at Fontana (Calif.). The other top-five finish was at the season-opening Daytona 500, where Edwards had the fastest qualifying time to earn the pole starting position.
But he also came in 17th at Phoenix this year and 39th a couple of weeks ago at Bristol (Tenn.). The good news for Edwards and his Roush-Fenway crew chief Bob Osborne is, there is still plenty of racing left before the Chase for the Cup in October.
Edwards began his NASCAR racing career at age 21, competing in seven events in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2002. His best finish in his first year racing in the truck series was eighth, ironically at Kansas Speedway, practically his home track. The young stock-car racing rookie impressed team owner Jack Roush enough that Roush signed Edwards in 2003 and began racing fulltime in both the Busch and the then-Nextel Cup series a year later. Edwards has been with Roush ever since, signing on to a new five-year multi-year contract at the end of last season.
In 270 Nextel and now Sprint Cup Series races over nine seasons, all under the Roush banner, Edwards has won 19 times and recorded 147 top-10 finishes. Add to that 37 total wins in what is now the Nationwide Series, with 173 top-10s.
Early in the 2005 season, Edwards won at Atlanta Motor Speedway to capture his first Busch Series victory and the very next day, he drove the No. 99 Ford to the checkered flag at the same track for his first win in the Nextel Cup Series. At the time he did it, no other NASCAR driver had ever pulled off a double win in both series at Atlanta over the same weekend, although it had been accomplished numerous times at other racetracks.
Edwards also is only the 11th driver in NASCAR history to win at all three of the organization's racing levels (trucks, Busch/Nationwide. Nextel/Sprint Cup). He made Victory Lane four times in the Cup Series in 2005, which still stands as Edwards' second most productive year in Sprint Cup racing in terms of wins. Only in 2008 did he record more wins (9). In two of his eight previous Cup seasons, Edwards was shutout completely (2006 and 2009), with no wins and no poles.
The racetrack where the No. 99 car has had its greatest success with Edwards behind the wheel has been Atlanta Motor Speedway. In 14 starts over his career, Edwards has won three times at Atlanta and finished in the top five eight times. A close second on his list of tracks where he has enjoyed a lot of success is Texas Motor Speedway, where he also has claimed three Sprint Cup victories.
Conversely, a venue that has not been particularly kind to the Edwards race team is Martinsville, the shortest track on the NASCAR circuit at .526 miles. Martinsville (Virginia) Speedway is the site of Sunday's Goody's Fast Relief 500.
In 15 races at the Virginia track they call the Paperclip (because of its configuration), Edwards has come away without a win and only one top-five finish and an average finish of 16th. He's going to have some work to do if he hopes to see any improvement in his Martinsville track record in his 16 start there on Sunday. Edwards could manage only the 32nd best qualifying speed for Sunday's Sprint Cup race, which means he will have to work his way forward from the back of the pack.
One of the things Edwards and his Roush-Fenway team wanted to improve upon this year was in qualifying and gaining more consistency in where the No. 99 car starts each race.
"It's really a fun race (at Martinsville) when your car is fast - and when you say fast, I don't mean you have to be head and shoulders faster than everybody," Edwards told reporters after Friday's practice session for the Goody's Fast Relief 500. "You just have to be that two-hundreths of a second faster than the guy in front of you, and then it's fun because you're the guy rooting and gouging and picking a spot where you're going to pass the guy in front of you.
"On the other hand," he said, "if your car is one that is a couple-hundreths slower, it's a long day."
Edwards' NASCAR fans are hoping the No. 99's slower qualifying speed doesn't portend the latter of the two aforementioned scenarios and another "long day" at Martinsville on Sunday
Edwards' record over the last five seasons (a total of 180 race events) includes 15 of his 19 wins and an average rank of 5.6 in the final driver standings. This is one of the contributing factors that led a number of motor racing analysts to project Edwards as the preseason favorite to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship this year, in his ninth full season of Cup racing.
Currently in 12th place and 49 points behind the leader (teammate Greg Biffle) in the drivers' standings, Edwards is going to have to pick up the pace a little if he wants to validate the forecasters' expectations of what was supposed to be the Year of the No. 99 Car.
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