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2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 99 Aflac Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Bob Osborne
Years with current team: 8
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (2008)
Hometown: Columbia, Mo.
Born: August 15, 1979
As NASCAR fans search for the next heavyweight driver to challenge Jimmie Johnson for the title belt, a familiar fighter has emerged from the crowd in Carl Edwards. After going two-for-two in victories to end last season and jumping to fourth in the final standings, Ford’s top dog is the trendy pick by garage insiders to go mano a mano with the No. 48 another time.
“Please don’t do that again,” quipped Edwards after winning the season finale at Homestead, mindful of the last media frenzy that proclaimed him Johnson’s main title threat. “That didn’t work worth a damn.”
Those words speak volumes about a man who remembers a thing or two about overconfidence. A blistering hot streak at the end of 2008, one that saw him claim three of his nine wins in the last four races of the season, left that year’s title runner-up with seemingly all the momentum versus Johnson heading into ’09. But Edwards almost literally stubbed his toe from the start, breaking his foot at one point in a winless year where the team seemed to stagnate, stubbornly relying on old notes and ideas until it was far too late.
So why should we believe that Edwards won’t make the same mistakes twice? Simple: He’s not the same man he was two years ago, with even the post-race victory routine adding a new wrinkle. Sure, the competitive fire remains; Edwards is a Jekyll and Hyde personality whose temper can flare up at a moment’s notice, as witnessed by his contentious feuds with Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick early last season. But now, Edwards is a happily married man and a new father. Gone are the headlines of turmoil between him and his Roush Fenway Racing teammates, and physical confrontations with other drivers in the garage. He won’t be pushed around on-track — see: Atlanta, Gateway 2010 — but it seems that fire is a more calculated burn, one that could finally get him the title that he seeks.
“I feel like I've worked very hard on some shortcomings that I have as a driver,” he said last November. “That process is very painful. But I feel a lot better right now going into 2011 than I did going into 2009.”
One thing that will help fuel Edwards’ championship hopes is the Ford FR9 engine that made its limited debut in 2010, recording five poles and four wins (two via Edwards). With the new powerplant under the hood full-time in 2011, the Blue Ovals hope to once again be running neck-and-neck with their Chevy counterparts. They even seem to have caught up to their peers in engineering, with poor simulation programs no longer derailing chassis development at the shop.
Paired once again with crew chief Bob Osborne, Edwards and his team also enjoy something that is rare these days in the ultra-competitive NASCAR world — continuity. This duo has been paired together for all but one of their seven seasons in Cup, although even good relationships need work at times. After their struggles hit a low point last spring and with frustration building, Edwards credited Osborne’s willingness to change for spurring their return to title contention.
Add in the monetary support of sponsor Aflac, one of the best in the business, and the No. 99 now enjoys the stability many teams lack. As long as Edwards has learned a lesson from those Keselowski crashes, drawing the line between revenge and rationality, he’ll actually carry the least emotional baggage of any of Johnson’s main challengers this year.
“For our team, to be on the upswing that we are,” he says, “this is as good as it gets.”
That type of enthusiasm is exactly what’s needed for the daunting challenge ahead. With others primed to take a step back, it seems that Roush Fenway Racing and Edwards are full steam ahead, prepared to blow by the competition, learn from their experiences and become the main threat to Johnson’s throne once again.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Many expect Edwards to be a prime mover in the title race, particularly since he won the final two races of 2010. “Edwards is always doing his best,” says a crew chief. “You’ve really got to get him credit for that, but sometimes it helps and sometimes it hurts. His career is one that’s hard to put a finger on. After 2008, he looked ready to win a championship, and then it all went away. The way it looks entering the season, this is going to be an ‘on year’ for Edwards.”
Another says, “Carl gets excited sometimes, mainly, I think, because he wants to win so badly. Maybe he has a tendency to go too far at times, but I’d love to have him as a driver. He’s as dedicated as anybody out there.”
Another says, “I like Edwards’ honesty. And he’s good for the sport. He wins a race and goes into the stands to celebrate with the fans. Stands on his car and cuts a back flip. I just can’t help but wonder what happens if he runs up into the stands after a controversial win.”
Looking at Checkers: Thirteen of Edwards’ 18 career Cup wins have come on the big intermediates like Atlanta, Homestead and Texas.
Pretty Solid Pick: He has five top 10s in six starts at the Glen, although you probably have better options.
Good Sleeper Pick: Lest you forget, he has a couple wins in Thunder Valley.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The Brickyard. No idea why.
Insider Tip: Cousin Carl is a pretty solid pick most any week provided the equipment is up to snuff. The 1.5- and 2-mile ovals are his bread ’n’ butter, though.
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 19
Laps Led: 427
Laps Completed: 10,575
Lead Lap Finishes: 32
Bonus Points: 70
Races Led: 13
Average Start: 15.2
Average Finish: 11.8
After First 26 Races: 8th
Final Points Standing: 4th
Driver Rating: 91.8 (7th)