Victory, again, at long last (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Carl Edwards can commiserate with Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- these long losing streaks stink.
Earnhardt broke his skid last summer. Edwards broke his last Sunday.
And Edwards' win couldn't have come at a better moment....after he crashed five cars at Daytona.
"That was a buzz-saw," Edwards says of the five losses.
At least if this early stretch of the season, with these new 2013s, is all about logistics, with new bodies and new parts and new chassis designs, well team owner Jack Roush just passed the first big test.
But while it was a good-news Sunday at Phoenix for Edwards and Roush, and Edwards' new crew chief Jimmy Fennig, it wasn't such a good-news race day for this sport's new race car. The 2013s so far haven't performed up to their pre-season hype.
Put simply, drivers say they can't pass.
Now after two years of generally mediocre racing on the stock car tour, these 2013s have been expected to be a big game-changer.
So far, no.
In fact Denny Hamlin says the new car so far isn't working as well as the old car-of-tomorrow it replaces.
Sunday's Vegas 400 will be on a lightning-fast track, and the new 2013 appear to be much, much faster than the old cars. What that means for the racing remains to be seen.
"After the Vegas race, you are going to have all the opinions you want on that subject, because that's the first race where we see huge speeds, huge reliance on downforce," Edwards says. "I think we'll know where we stand after that."
Jack Roush still knows how to pop the champagne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Edwards' mantra has been "take all the downforce away" from race cars, and force teams to work on mechanical grip. That, however, didn't seem to work that well at Daytona.
And the Daytona 500, a boring, single-file three hours, may have shaken up some NASCAR officials too.
Worrisome -- if these drivers couldn't pass each other on the much slower Phoenix one-mile, how much more difficult might it be to pass here Sunday on this very, very fast track?
"NASCAR told us after Vegas and a couple of these fast races early in the season, we would take a look at where we stand, and there still might be more changes coming," Edwards says. "It's a moving target.. and it will really be up to all of us to decide what we want."
And the entire subject might be just a little too hot politically for many in the NASCAR garage, because there is a lot riding on these 2013s as game-changers.
"It's really tough to get everyone to agree on what the right thing is," Edwards frets. "But everything I’ve seen in racing says that if you have cars that have a ton of horsepower and low grip, then you get to see who can set the car up the best and who can drive it the best."
Uh, well, maybe that is just what we saw at Daytona. But to be honest that wasn't much of a show.
And NASCAR racing, remember, isn't just about winning races -- it's about putting on an entertaining show for the fans.
Downforce is good?
That's another way of looking at the situation.
"If you have a bunch of cars that have a ton of grip and have a relatively low amount of power, and they're in the throttle a lot during a lap, and relying on downforce, then you get all of these unintended consequences of how a car acts when it’s following another car, and how a car acts when a car is next to it," Edwards says. "And all of this stuff that is really hard to fix."
But maybe the Daytona and Phoenix races have shown that the 2013 project was indeed behind schedule last season...and may still be behind schedule.
Thursday here will be a rare test day at the track for teams. Some are surprised NASCAR didn't offer the same extra day last week at Phoenix, as new as these 2013s are.
Thursday's game plan? "I'm hoping to find a balance of the car by itself," Edwards says. "...because qualifying will be so important, as we saw at Phoenix.
"I would also like to run around some other cars and see how the car handles when I'm behind someone... and how I can move around and try to make the car work in a passing situation."
Part of the Edwards story is Jimmy Fennig, the wily veteran whose 30 years in the sport have made him a master, and a no-nonsense guy.
Another part if Bob Osborne, the guy who was Edwards' crew chief for so many years, until an illness last season sidelined him.
"Every person is different," Edwards says of the change-up on the pit box. "I am very, very grateful to Bob for everything he's done, and everything he still does for our team. We won 18 or 19 races together.
"The biggest thing I appreciate about Bob is that when he wasn't able to crew-chief anymore, there was absolutely no ego involved. He stepped aside and Chad Norris came in. Bob moved to a different position in the company, and right now he works hand-in-hand with each crew chief.
"I don't feel I lost Bob; I feel I gained Jimmy Fennig and Bob still works on our team."
After such a brilliant 2011 season, 2012 was pretty much a lost season for Edwards: "2012 was a long time.
"It was a full season of pretty lackluster performance for us."
So getting that first win is big.
And Fennig has been key:
"Jimmy specifically told me before the season started he wants me to make sure I understand the changes they have planned for practice, that I make sure to be there and be available to the engineers after practice," Edwards says.
"He didn't say 'How did you do it last year?' He said 'This is exactly what I want. This is how I'm going to do it.'
"He doesn't say 'This is the best way to do it.’ He just says 'This is how I'd like to do it. Can you do that?'
"I was really, really pleased at Phoenix how we worked together, how he managed the information exchange throughout the weekend, and how he managed the time. I think it's going to be very good."
Carl Edwards' signature victory charge into the grandstands (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)