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Mr. Buff, man of mystery: Carl Edwards has one last shot to win | NASCAR Racing Breaking News: Trackside Live, Every Week, Every Sprint Cup Race - MikeMulhern.net

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Mr. Buff, man of mystery: Carl Edwards has one last shot to win


  A pensive Carl Edwards ponders what's happened in 2009, and how to make 2010 a better season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
  

   By Mike Mulhern
   mikemulhern.net

   HOMESTEAD, Fla.

   Of all this season's great mysteries – the case of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the missing Richard Childress teams, the Rick Hendrick secrets – perhaps none is more baffling than Carl Edwards.
   Edwards, the buff sports cover dude, and highly personable and outgoing kid from Missouri, has this season become even more polished, one of the sport's best spokesmen, polished both on and off the track, making far fewer mistakes.
   Yet……
   How can a man go from being the dominant driver on the tour in 2008, with a league-leading nine wins, and from opening this year as one of the NASCAR championship favorites, to this: still winless heading into the stock car tour finale, and long out of the title hunt.
   But then at least Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne did make the chase….though they haven't managed to do much with the opportunity.
   Edwards three years ago came within a hair of winning the title. And last season Edwards and Osborne again were right in the thick of it. They won this race, the Miami Ford 400, last fall, and they finished just 69 points behind series champions Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. And Edwards might well have won that title if not for that bump-draft shot into teammate Greg Biffle at Talladega.
   And this year?
   Baffling, simply baffling.
   Yes, anyone not driving stuff engineered by Hendrick Motorsports this year hasn't had much to talk about. Hendrick teams will finish 1-2-3 in the Sprint Cup playoffs. Hendrick himself will take a ninth NASCAR Cup championship trophy back to North Carolina.
   Still, Carl Edwards?
   This, remember, is the guy who made that daring off-the-wall (literally) carom shot at Jimmie Johnson the last lap at Kansas, a stunning piece of derring-do.
    This is the guy who has been a sports headline ever since he broke into the series, so unexpectedly abrupt, in the summer of 2004.
    This is the guy who was expected by just about everyone in the sport to be the guy to take it right to Johnson this season.
    However Edwards hasn't won on the tour since here last fall; he hasn't won a pole, hasn't even been close; his best finish was a second at Pocono in June; he hasn't had a top-five finish since Michigan in August; and he's led just seven laps since the spring.
    To his credit Edwards hasn't done a Kyle Busch and stormed off to his motorcoach hideaway. No, Edwards has been front-and-center through it all, talkative, meditative….but still winless.
   That's the setting:
  "This is it, this is our last shot to get a win this season," Edwards says.
   "And we couldn’t come to a better track --  Roush Fenway does really well here; our Fords run well."
   To put it mildly. Jack Roush drivers have won five straight here, Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Edwards. And this is where Roush's Kurt Busch clinched that 2004 NASCAR championship in such dramatic fashion.
  

  


  Saturdays are much better than Sundays this season for Carl Edwards, here celebrating a Phoenix win with his wife Dr Kate Downey (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  

   But this Sunday afternoon Edwards won't be bidding for the championship; he just wants to finish in the top10 in the final standings….which means he has to make up, say, 45 points on Kasey Kahne, or hope some of the men ahead of them in the points struggle.
   "I had a dream that it all worked out….but then I woke up and realized we still have to go do it," Edwards says. 
   "We've been running well on the 1-1/2-mile tracks."
   Yes – that third at Atlanta (following a seventh at California back in the spring), a fourth in Charlotte's 600, a pair of fourths at Michigan, a sixth in the October run at Fontana, 10th at Kansas.
    And after today, what about some predictions for 2010….since everyone missed so badly this year?
    "You can say Jimmie Johnson is going to be strong, probably," Edwards says with a wry grin. 
   "But a year ago I was sitting here looking forward to this season, thinking 'All right, we're going to go win nine or 10 races, we're going to dominate the championship. That's the plan.'
   "That's still the plan for next year…it's just that things come and go so easily, and it's very tough to make a plan for your results."
    Indeed.
   And Edwards says this season, with its high expectations and extreme frustrations, "was a big wake-up call for me and our team -- that you could become uncompetitive so easily.
     "I don't know what's going to happen next year.  I hope we get back on track."
    While Roush may shake up things around the Charlotte shop, Edwards says he and Osborne plan to stay together and buck up to the challenges:
    "It would be foolish to let our relationship go South because of our on-track results. 
     "Bob still works as hard as he ever has…maybe even harder.  I'm driving as hard as I ever have – and probably a little smarter than I ever have. 
    "The last thing I or Bob want to do is make knee-jerk changes….because, on the whole, we (all the Roush teams) have all struggled.  Our performances have all been depressed.
   "So it's not like we're running worse than our teammates.
    "We've just got to stay the course.
    "And whenever I start arguing with Bob, or nit-picking what he does or how he does it, I just think back to last season when he couldn't make a wrong decision. I've just got to have faith we'll come through this."
   
   

   Now that's the kind of smile that we like to see from Carl Edwards....maybe a smile we'll see Sunday evening at Homestead? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    One point here – in this sport when a team falls behind it's almost impossible to catch back up, until the winter regrouping.
    "It feels that way," Edwards says, somewhat ruefully. "You work so hard just to get to the next race, so you have to be short-term thinking throughout the season. 
    "The only time you really get to step back and look at everything on the macro scale is at the end of the season.
    "Our own team, I feel we've picked up on the 1-1/2-miles (over the 10 months of the season). We were okay at the beginning; terrible in the middle of the season; and then lately -- if you look at Matt Kenseth's results – we've picked up.  We've gained a little. 
    "And Jeff Burton (with the rival Childress operation, also struggling)  sure ran well last week (at Phoenix, second, following a ninth at Texas and a fifth at Talladega)).
    "So we're seeing glimpses of it.
    "But if you have six or eight or 10 bad weeks, you're so far down in the points and everybody is so used to you running bad, that even if you have a glimmer of hope, it just doesn't show up and you don't remember it."
   
   


   Maybe team owner Jack Roush needs to put a 'no Frisbee' clause in Carl Edwards' contract. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And this whole deal, for all the struggling teams, is exacerbated by the amazing consistency of those guys atop the stands. While most teams rise and fall and rise again, Johnson and Knaus – maddeningly – are remarkable consistent from year to year. "It is interesting how for us it has been cyclical…and for Jimmie it hasn't been," Edwards muses. 
   So Edwards, Osborne and Roush face a two-fold problem – getting back in gear, and then maintaining that.
    "We have to figure out what we can do to keep our performance on a high level," Edwards says.
    Johnson and Knaus, Edwards says, have been "really amazing. 
    "I wouldn't have nearly the respect for what that team has done if I hadn't gone through this over the last four years and understood how tough it is. I don't know if I can convey how amazing that is to me. 
    "I don't know if it's something mechanically on the cars, or a way of doing things there, or a way of managing people….
    "I don't know where exactly their advantage lies. 
    "But that's the team you want to emulate…and figure out what they're doing.
     "I don't know what they're doing, but whatever it is, it's good."
    Good enough for an historic four straight NASCAR Cup championships.

   

   


   It's been quite a season for Carl Edwards. Forgetable, in some respects. Quite unforgetable in others (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   

    Part of the problem for all these teams chasing the Hendrick bunch may be testing. Perhaps NASCAR's no-testing rule at tour tracks.
   The best way to get better is to test at the real tour tracks on the real race tires.
   And Roush is pushing for NASCAR to open tour weekends a day early, with that extra day ear-marked for testing. With only a few hours during the actual race weekend itself, it's virtually impossible to recover if the car off the truck isn't just right.
    Two years ago when NASCAR introduced the new car-of-tomorrow – as an awkwardly handling machine – it also had a type of limit on testing. Which team owners – on the 'honor' system – were supposed to adhere to.
   Hendrick teams ignored all that, tested frequently, and dominated.
   Edwards: "The Hendrick cars had tested 26 times or something before we went to the track for the first time to test.
    "So right there we were behind. And it showed on the race track."
   But Edwards says he doesn't think that's the situation here and now:  "At this point I feel we're all testing about the same amount, so I don't know that's really the issue."
    Well, maybe that Talladega flip in April, in retrospect, was a turning point, for one reason or another? A win that afternoon might have changed the season.
   "I saw something the other day that said the highlight (of Edwards' season) was we had the most spectacular 24th-place finish in the history of the sport…which I thought that was pretty funny," Edwards said with a laugh, recalling climbing out of his ravaged car and sprinting on foot to the finish line. 
   "But the thing I'm proud of this season is that once we realized -- and I realized -- that we were not the same team (as in 2008), we buckled down and got the best we could out of our finishes. And we made the chase -- which at that time was a huge accomplishment.
    "That's the way I've been smarter  --  I wasn't in denial, and wrecking my car, or making terrible choices because I wanted something that wasn't available, a finish that wasn't going to happen. 
    "I accepted the facts and did the best with them."
   And now, the final race of a very long and frustrating season awaits:
   "I have mixed emotions about it," Edwards concedes. "We've had a long season...but I don't want it to be over.
    "I want to have some more opportunities to win and get it back on track…so I can look back and say 'Hey, see? That wasn't so bad.'
    "But at the same time I'm really excited about getting this season done and starting next season and having a fresh start."
   
   


   Carl Edwards, victorious in NASCAR's Homestead finale in 2008, capping a nine-win season and hard championship charge (Photo: Autostock)
   


  
   

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