Carl (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
At this point one year ago Carl Edwards was atop the NASCAR world.
Now four weeks later Edwards put his name in the stock car racing record book in the tightest race in the sport's history, losing to Tony Stewart on a tie-breaker, season victories.
Edwards had logged the best overall finishing record of anyone in the sport, hogged the top spot in the standings most of the season, and if he'd somehow been able to pass ol' Smoke in those final miles at Homestead-Miami, Edwards would have won the Sprint Cup championship.
And in those moments of such bitter loss last November, Edwards displayed such remarkable grace....
But then that's been his style over his major league career -- a very classy guy, as well as a wild and crazy racer when given the chance.
Remember 2008 here? Edwards versus Jimmie Johnson: Wow!
Fast forward to this weekend.
Edwards has been pretty much just a footnote to the action this year. No wins. Missed the playoffs. Not really a contender on any given Sunday, even though teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, either one or the other, were atop the standings 21 of the season's first 28 weeks.
This year's title chase appears to have boiled down to three men, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, with Clint Bowyer hoping to hang in there and make a move in the final five races, beginning with Sunday's Kansas Casino 400.
Well, he's still scratching his head. His last tour win was way, way back in March 2011, at Las Vegas.
"I haven't stopped by the casino here because I am sure I would lose," Edwards says with a wry laugh.
One of the many problems with NASCAR's new 'chase' points system is that men not making the playoff cut become virtually invisible the final 10 weeks of the season.
Nope, that's not Dale Earnhardt Jr. It's Regan Smith, filling in while Junior recovers from two recent concussions (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
There is a bit of the old Mark Martin here, in Edwards' downcast. But he's trying to fight through it all.
"I have learned the last few years that I have such a high expectation... and I have learned to deal with things when they don't go my way a little bit better," Edwards says slowly. "I think the trick in this sport -- and probably in life -- is not beating yourself up too badly when things don’t go your way.
"Let me tell you, I have some practice at that this year.
"It is so frustrating when things seem to be going well and something breaks, or you make a mistake.
"That has been something that, starting with that last race at Homestead last year, has made me a tougher person... and better competitor.
"When success comes, I think I am going to really appreciate it a lot more."
Maybe here this afternoon.
This track, though just 12 years old, has just been repaved and radically redesigned.
It's fast as hell. "Stupid fast," Stewart says.
Johnson agrees: Drive it into the corner until you see Elvis. Then go a couple car-lengths deeper.
Not sure why NASCAR officials seem so fascinated with such zany, dangerous speeds. Two of its big stars have already been dinged hard here, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin. And the big race has yet to be run.
Crew chief Bob Edwards, back at the track this weekend, after sitting out a few months with medical issues (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
With these speeds and the Earnhardt-Hamlin crashes, the issue of concussions is suddenly a hot topic on the tour.
And drivers really don't like even to talk about it.
"I don't know if I have had a concussion," Edwards says. "I haven't really asked too much.
"That is a delicate thing to mess with.
"I have some friends that do some MMA stuff, and some boxers, and I have been around a lot of folks that play football, and I have seen and talked to folks that competed in really tough sports... and they still all admit that there is something they are missing because of that many times hitting their head.
"I have hit my head a couple times to where I was in bad shape for a day or so. But I have never been diagnosed.
"If someone did diagnose me -- if a doctor said I could not hit my head again for the next three weeks, it would be very difficult for me to get in that race car.
" Yeah, you might go out for three weeks and save your season. But if you go hurt yourself (again), you might ruin your career. And I am in this for the long haul. I want to win lots of races and lots of championships."
Johnson says this 400 "is going to be a big guessing game.
"Tire wear isn't all that high. When the track was green, we did see some tire wear; so maybe as we're starting to work in the top lane (20 degree banking in the corners, much higher than the previous 15 degrees), we'll need to put four on for the first half of the race.
"But I would assume two tires and good fuel mileage are going to be awfully important."
Another fuel mileage finish?
Good grief. Is nobody in this sport's front office paying attention, or looking at the grandstands, about half-full too many times already this season?
The last 200 miles or so of last weekend's Charlotte 500 went caution-free, and drivers were in fuel-mileage-saving mode the whole way.
Such featherfoot racing isn't real NASCAR racing...
Or maybe the championship trophy should be renamed the EPA Cup.
Well, if that's the way it goes again here Sunday, Edwards says he doesn't plan to be part of that:
"I swear to you I am going to drive as aggressively as possible. This is not going to be a points race, or a cruise around race. I am going strictly to the front.
"For me personally this race is as important as any race on the circuit. A win here would be as big as any Daytona 500, any Brickyard 400.
"This win that I plan on getting on Sunday is what we need to turn our whole season around and make this a great year."
However it probably won't be easy.
"I hate new surfaces. I like old, nasty, rutted, pot-holed race tracks," Edwards says.
And that ain't this track any more.
Smooth, new asphalt, Michigan's 218-mph 'sparking-hard' tires...
"This race track is so fast, it is going to be hard to pass," Edwards says. "And it is a little scary when you get out of the groove.
"This track is so different from what it used to be. They changed the banking, and the speeds are so high in the middle of the corner.
"I think it is going to be a pretty neat experience for the fans, because these corners... I don't know how fast we were going in qualifying trim, but if feels like 210 mph. It slams you into the corner.
"There is going to be some wild stuff going on."
Edwards' long-time crew chief, Bob Osborne, has been on the bench the past few months dealing with medical issues. But he's here this weekend.
"Bob is as good as any crew chief in the garage," Edwards says.
"The key for us is to have some fun. This year is pretty much shot, in terms of all our big goals. But we still have some things we can do.
" A win here would be great... even just a really good showing for all these folks that have come out and supported me for so many years would be huge."
So what's gone wrong this year?
Edwards points to a chart of his season: "We have been involved in an incident -- either a wreck, or failure of some sort, in over 15 percent of the first 26 races.
"But the other thing is we just haven't run very well. It seems like our whole team has struggled with speed.
"Speed is really important in racing. Now we are getting it back. Last week Greg Biffle ran really well, and we ran well, and this week we are very fast in practice.
"Hopefully the tide is turning, and we are gaining momentum, because next year we want to win that championship. This year has been a disappointment for me."
Edwards is certainly ready to party, well, in his own way: "It would be like O'Doul's all around, and I am buying.
"We would probably stay up to 10:30 or 11:00, and listen to some Kenny Rogers.
"It would be a crazy party, man. Maybe have everybody help me do some cleaning and organizing at the house. Maybe a workout, or maybe do some Kettlebells.
"I would at least go out to dinner, maybe splurge and have a piece of pie.
"...Have everyone meet at Shakespeare's Pizza (in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri) and have some fun."
But make sure it's thin-crust. Healthier.
Carl Edwards and his crew debate Sunday's Kansas 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)