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Defensive driving? Time to start sweating? Not for Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards: It's Stroker Ace time, hammer down

  Jeff Gordon: A seven-time Charlotte winner going for number eight, from the pole (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern



   Beware: wounded animals.
   And in a 'Boys, have at it' season, who could be more dangerous than half a dozen increasingly desperate championship contenders all-but out of the Sprint Cup title chase?
   Well, Carl Edwards, for one, likes that kind of thinking.

   Given the wild restarts and five-wide (!) action at normally staid California Speedway, little wonder that Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and maybe even Jimmie Johnson too are starting to think 'Drive defensively.'
    Jeff Gordon (191.544 mph) and Edwards (191.455), two men still hanging in the hunt for the title, took the front row Thursday night for Saturday night's Round Five of NASCAR's 10-race playoffs.
   And the two should certainly be men to watch here this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway – a couple of guys who have nothing to lose in these final weeks of the season. "This is huge...and a huge surprise," Gordon said. "We used to be the pole king, but the last few years we seem to have lost it." It was his 69th career pole, but his first since Texas last fall...and his first at this track in 10 years.
   Gordon and Edwards, both winless in well over a year but both also very strong runners the past two months, will start well ahead of their title rivals. "Tony Stewart had to have that win last weekend at California, to stay in the title chase....and we're about out on that limb too," Gordon added. "But we could be sitting here with three or four wins this year, ones that got away."
   That 34th at Fontana Sunday – an electrical problem – has Edwards 162 points down to Johnson. Until Sunday Edwards was setting a sizzling pace on the tour, with a 12-week average of 6.0 – best in the sport.

    Carl Edwards: one of the most dangerous men in NASCAR, with the hottest record, until Sunday's bad day in California (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "We just came off a week where we felt like we got kicked in the stomach...and we've got to keep digging," Edwards says with a deep sigh. "Those are the tough times." 
    Yet that makes Edwards, wounded, even more dangerous.
   "It's just like we talked about at the beginning of this chase -- steadily guys have taken themselves out," Edwards says.  "We took ourselves out of the hunt...for the lead at least for the moment, last week. 
    "Greg Biffle might have done the same with that engine failure. 
     "Kyle Busch had his trouble too.
     "So now you're getting down to a smaller group of guys -- who have more and more pressure on them. And I think those guys are more likely to give
than other guys. 
     "So on restarts, that's definitely part of the psychology....and that could play well into the hands of a guy like me."

    Edwards, who last year came up with the surprising Harlequin Romance books promotion, and who last week was walking around California's Auto Club Speedway with a real duck (Aflac is one of his sponsors), is now adding yet another marketing twist, with a signature cologne, Avon's Turn4XT:  The scent of victory?
    Edwards, whose buff photos in ESPN's magazine raised NASCAR marketing a notch a couple years back, has become perhaps this sport's top pitchman. "We all know Stroker Ace dressing in the chicken suit and doing all that stuff ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086379/ )....There are lines you have to draw, but I've not approached that line," he says with a laugh. 
    "I'm comfortable doing a lot of different things. I like doing different things.  I like doing stuff that's new, and I like trying new things. 
    "This was something that I hadn't really ever thought of doing....and it was interesting. 
    "There were parts where I thought 'Boy, that's a little bit of a racy photo.' But it really came together well.
    "The Harlequin thing  -- I still have people come up to me and they're like 'Well, I was reading this book, Carl.....'
    "When we first talked about it, I thought 'Wow, that's outside the box.'
     "And it's turned into something I'm really glad I did.  It was fun."


     When it comes to promotions and marketing, Carl Edwards keeps stepping it up a notch (Photo: ESPN)

    But back to the real business here: Can Edwards rally from 162 points down?
   "Hell, yes, we're still in it," Edwards says of his title chances.  "If we've got a mathematical chance of being in it, then we do have a chance.  We don't quit. 
    "I just talked to PK (veteran crewman Pierre Kuettel) in the window of the car when he was putting up my window net a minute ago, and his words were 'We don't quit until Homestead is over.'
    "Now that doesn't make it any easier....
    "But I was a little nervous about Talladega while we were up there real close to the point lead, and now I'm really excited about Talladega.  I think you could see a huge swing there. 
     "If we could go win the thing, or run top-three, and a couple of guys get caught up in wrecks, the chase could look a lot different.
    "That's Talladega, and anything can happen."
    Edwards knows first-hand.
   Just two years ago Edwards and teammate Biffle went into the Talladega chase race that fall looking good for the championship....only to run into each other and both crash out while running 1-2 in the final miles.
   And of course there was that wild, too dramatic crash at Talladega last year when he got flipped and nearly went into the grandstands while battling for the win in the closing laps.

    So just mentioning Talladega brings a wave of change over his face: "Man, I have a love-hate relationship with that place.
    "But I am looking forward to it now."
    Then, a bit tongue in cheek, Edwards considered the wild, wild card factor Talladega is in the playoffs and says "Points should not be awarded at Talladega. 
    "In a fair competition they shouldn't be, because it's so random. 
     "It's just a treacherous race. 
     "Since there are points awarded, it adds a whole other level of stress to the race. If you're doing really well in the points, every lap your heart is
pounding, and you're just trying to predict any wrecks that might happen and the best way to avoid them.
    "A guy's position like mine -- the reasons I don't like it when I'm running well in the points are the same reasons I look forward to it now."
   Just what is it like to get caught up in one of those Big Ones?
   "You're sitting in your car -- just like you guys are sitting in this room --- and you're all packed together and you're going 200 mph...and one person makes a terrible move and spins out, or something happens," Edwards says.
    "All of a sudden everybody's eyes get wide and you're stabbing the brakes, you're looking in the mirror, you're listening to your spotter, you're trying to drive through this smoke.
   "The worst is when you think you've made it through and then some car that hit the wall bounced off and catches you in the right rear, and all hell breaks loose.
    "It's such an emotional rollercoaster throughout the day....."
The starting lineup for Saturday night's Charlotte Bank of America 500






   Sometimes this NASCAR rollercoaster flies right off the tracks: Carl Edwards doing a backflip at Talladega, and not in victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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