By the close of last year’s Daytona 500, Carl Edwards had already wrecked four of his Fords five times in the 2013 calendar year.
It wasn’t exactly the auspicious start Edwards had hoped for as he tried to snap a winless streak that reached 70 races over the course of the prior two seasons. And it wasn’t the start his team needed during the early period of NASCAR’s transition to its Gen-6 car, in a shop already working overtime to fine-tune the new pieces.
But good track position and horrible passing conditions rectified that a week later at Phoenix International Raceway, where Edwards drove the No. 99 to Victory Lane after leading 122 laps. He snapped that winless streak — the longest of his 10-season Sprint Cup career — and seemed to make a statement that Roush Fenway Racing had corrected the issues that kept him out of the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I think we have a lot of great things to look forward to,” Edwards said days later. “A win right off the bat is really, really good for us.”
Alas, it was a bit of a mirage in the desert.
Yes, Edwards did improve in 2013 on his personal-worst 2012. He did return as a qualifier for the Chase. He also saw an increase in important statistical averages.
In 2012, Edwards finished 15th in points, without a win, and with just three top-5 finishes while racing only 56.2 percent of the season inside the top 15. Last year, he nabbed two wins — you’ll excuse most fans who forgot about the fact that he was the winner of the oh-so-controversial regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway — while pushing his top-5 finishes to nine and piling on a 12.7 percent increase in his laps run inside the top 15.
All told, Edwards’ driver rating jumped to 92.5 after a dismal 84.2 in 2012. The cumulative effect of Edwards’ strength was most notable after that second Richmond race. Without the Chase format causing a reshuffle of the point standings, Edwards would have left Richmond one point ahead of Jimmie Johnson with 10 races left.
It was those final 10 races, however, that ultimately left Edwards in a non-speaking role at last season’s Las Vegas awards banquet. In fact, he was dead last in the Chase when the checkered flag flew on the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. An average finish of 16.9 in the Chase will do that to a driver.
But the way Edwards came about that horrible, no-good finish to an otherwise nice season of team improvement is exactly why it makes sense to believe that he’ll do better this season.
No, Edwards was never really championship material — his strength all year was consistent finishing, not necessarily overpowering wins. However, his Chase run was marred by two mechanical failures. First, he suffered a wheel hub issue at Dover that left him 15 laps down in 35th after starting fourth and leading. Later, he lost an engine at Texas Motor Speedway, a track where Edwards is traditionally a favorite.
Those failures were combined with an uncharacteristic shortage of Chase top-10 finishes — Edwards had only three. There was also a blown opportunity for a Phoenix sweep, but he ran out of gas and was ultimately relegated to 13th in the point standings.
If his team can just put its bad luck behind him, Edwards figures to improve his position this year. He’ll also be in his second season with crew chief Jimmy Fennig, personally requested after a tumultuous 2012 left Edwards searching for a team leader.
The relationship between Fennig and Edwards was easily the biggest question mark before last season, but the Type-A personalities seemed to mesh amazingly well. Fennig, despite his military style, managed to avoid stepping on the toes of his driver, while Edwards managed to align to Fennig’s straight-and-narrow style of team leadership.
All told, it’s a relationship with a minimal amount of unicorns, rainbows and butterflies, but one that seemed to work without fireworks in 2013. That’s exactly what team owner Jack Roush was hoping for. But as Ford’s No. 1 wheelman, signed to a multi-year extension in 2011, Edwards needs to step it up one more notch. Since the signing, he’s won only twice, finished outside the top 10 in points the last two years and fallen outside the marketing limelight. There’s too much money getting paid out here for executives to be satisfied with that.
With a year of fine-tuning under their belts, Edwards and Fennig should improve. But 2014 can be no mirage.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There may have been behind-the-scenes questions about Carl Edwards’ personality in the past, but none of his rivals currently question his desire.
“He is a very consistent driver who is truly passionate about the sport,” one crew chief says. “He’s driven for performance and physical fitness. When he was in contention for the title, he was so competitive, almost to a fault.”
“The tide of success with the Gen-6 car seemed to be against Edwards and the Ford camp,” another rival notes. “They’re making some crew chief changes and moving some stuff around over there that will probably make them better. He needs to have success early and then ride the wave to the Chase next year.”
From a media perspective, one member values Edwards’ insight and honesty: “I don’t always personally agree with Edwards’ opinion on every topic, but I sincerely appreciate the fact that he’ll lay it on the line with you. Carl isn’t gonna BS you. And he really takes ‘this side’ of his job seriously — not all drivers are as willing to give an honest effort in communicating with the media like he does.”
Looking at Checkers: His 2013 wins came on a three-quarter-miler and a one-miler, but 11 of his 16 triumphs in the CoT/Gen-6 era have come on the intermediates.
Pretty Solid Pick: See that 6.6-place average finish at Homestead in the chart above? He’s in the zone when others are mentally on a beach in the Caribbean.
Good Sleeper Pick: We’ve covered his intermediate prowess, so how about that 7.9-place average showing in the seven races at Watkins Glen in the CoT/Gen-6 era?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Has averaged a 17th at Talladega dating back to that scary catchfence-tumble in 2009, cracking the top 10 only twice.
Insider Tip: We love Jimmy Fennig, and Edwards is a fascinating thinker, but is the 99 team still a feared unit?
No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Owners: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Jimmy Fennig
Years with current team: 11
Under contract through: 2015+
Best points finish: 2nd (2008, ’11)
Hometown: Columbia, Mo.
Born: Aug. 15, 1979
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro