NASCAR’s Edwards eager to leap from runner-up to champion

  • By Mark Long Associated Press
  • Friday, February 13, 2009 4:18pm
  • SportsSports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In any other year, Carl Edwards probably would have been a NASCAR champion.

He won nine Sprint Cup races, including three of the final four in the Chase for the championship, and had eight top-5 finishes in the 10-race Chase.

One problem: Jimmie Johnson was even better, forcing Edwards to settle for second place.

“If we run like that every year, we’re going to win a lot of championships,” Edwards said.

History bears him out. Only one current driver, four-time series champ Jeff Gordon in 1996, has ever won nine or more races in a season and failed to win the championship.

Edwards doesn’t expect it to happen again, at least not to him. And many agree, which is why Edwards enters Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 as the trendy pick to dethrone three-time defending champ Johnson.

“It doesn’t really put any pressure on me that people are picking me and picking us to win the championship,” Edwards said. “I’ve kind of tried not to pay any attention to that. I put a lot of pressure on myself. Once I’m in that race car, it’s all or nothing, so hopefully that works out and this doesn’t change anything, I don’t think.”

Edwards’ all-or-nothing approach has paid off at times — he did his trademark back-flip a combined 16 times in NASCAR’s top two series in 2008 — but it also can be a deterrent. It certainly was at Talladega last October.

Edwards tried to give Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle a shove to the front, but the bump caused Biffle to spin into another teammate, Matt Kenseth. All three cars crashed in a 12-car melee that included Chase drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Johnson, meanwhile, deftly maneuvered through the wreckage and ended up extending his lead in the Chase. Edwards finished 29th and accepted responsibility for the accident. That did little to stave off criticism.

Harvick called Edwards “a pansy” for running at the back of the pack early in hopes of avoiding danger and then trying to charge to the front late. Edwards delivered a sarcastic thank-you note to Harvick’s plane after the race.

The two tangled in the garage the following week at Charlotte. Photographs showed Edwards grabbing Harvick by the throat, and Harvick pushing him off him and onto the hood of Harvick’s car.

Things got worse a few days later when an ignition problem caused Edwards to finish 33rd in the race. The consecutive early exits turned out to be the difference between beating Johnson for the title and watching him celebrate for the third straight year.

“It doesn’t gnaw at me,” Edwards said. “Maybe it should, but what’s done is done. I did the best things I thought I could do. There were just those couple of races that didn’t go like we wanted them to. If Jimmie would have had a flat tire here or there — but it doesn’t eat at me because that’s how racing, or the world, works for that matter.”

Edwards has 16 wins and 54 top-5 finishes with Roush, going from the new kid on the block to the leader of the pack in four full seasons.

“He’s definitely put more pressure on all of us because he performed well, which is a great thing,” Kenseth said. “If you know your equipment is good enough to win with and he was able to win all of those races, you know you’ve got the stuff, you just have to figure out how to put it together.”

Edwards has, just not well enough to supplant Johnson.

A win in the Daytona 500 would be a strong indication Edwards is ready to make the leap. He finished second here in July, but has otherwise been an afterthought at NASCAR’s restrictor-plate races, Daytona and Talladega.

Although Edwards has been fairly quiet during Speedweeks — he finished seventh in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout and eighth in one of the twin 150-mile qualifying races — his offseason was filled with excitement.

He upset Michael Schumacher in the Race of Champions in London, spent a week traveling through Thailand and then returned home to Missouri to get married.

All the travel helped him forget the disappointment of finishing second to Johnson, not to mention finishing second to Clint Bowyer in the Nationwide series despite winning three of the final four races.

But since arriving in Daytona, all anyone has talked to him about was near-misses, close calls, redemption, being a runner-up and getting picked to win it all in 2009.

“I think Carl and his team are tough and they’re motivated by not winning last year,” four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. “But at the same time, they got beat when they were at the best that I’ve seen them to this point. That’s the best that I’ve seen them and they still got beat.”

Edwards recognizes that, but believes this year could be different.

“I want to beat (Johnson) really badly,” Edwards said. “I want to win that championship. I want to know what it feels like. Winning nine races and having a great year and all that is fine, but I’d take a championship with no wins rather than another nine-win season because I really want to accomplish that goal.”

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