For those looking to bury a supposedly slumping Carl Edwards and his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team, the message delivered in Sonoma, Calif., was clear: You haven’t kicked enough dirt on the grave yet.
Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig improvised on strategy, inheriting the lead of the Toyota-Save Mart 350 with 26 laps remaining. The driver did the rest, outwheeling NASCAR road-racing king Jeff Gordon to earn his first career Cup Series road win and second victory of the 2014 season. The win, coupled with a triumph at Bristol in March, assures Edwards of a spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Championship.
“Halfway through the race I did not think we were going to win it,” Edwards said. “I was driving my heart out and I wasn’t going anywhere, but Jimmy made the right adjustments, he made the right call to get us out front, then he reminded me to leave nothing out there and to drive as hard as I could, and that was what I needed.”
“We had a plan to start,” Fennig said. “We were going to do a two-stop race, and what happens is you kind of have to stick to your plan going in.
“But at the beginning we got a yellow and got trapped out there, and that hurt us quite a bit. But what we did at the end there, we were going to be pitting on lap 71, and figured, well, we’ll just come a lap early because we know (we can) stretch it because we worked on fuel mileage with Carl in practice. So we came one lap early and, fortunate enough, the yellow came out as soon as we were done with our pit stop. But we stuck to our plan. We were getting beat up out there, but the end result worked out to our favor.”
Roush Fenway Racing — and the Ford camp in general — has been beat consistently through the late spring and early summer by Hendrick Motorsports-powered Chevrolets, which had won five consecutive events dating back to May 10 at Kansas Speedway. The divide between Hendrick and the Ford teams of Roush Fenway and Team Penske had gotten glaring enough that Brad Keselowski, driver of Penske’s No. 2 Ford, framed the dilemma at Michigan one week ago.
“We all have got a little bit of work to do because it’s pretty obvious that the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else,” Keselowski said. “Usually that’s not something you catch up with in one season. As far ahead as they are right now, they’re probably a full season ahead of everyone.”
Enter the Sonoma Raceway road course, where driver finesse and solid brake package can mask some horsepower deficiencies. While Hendrick engines placed five drivers in the top seven, Edwards was able to ward off Gordon’s late-race charge.
“I could really get into Turn 11,” said runner-up Gordon of the final lap. “I was just trying to get (Edwards) to overdrive the corner and get up off the bottom. There’s such an advantage to hook around those tires that had he missed it — which he did about two laps before — that I thought I might be able to make it interesting. He did lock up going in there, but he made the corner, and that was it.”
Edwards also happens to be the biggest free agent on the Cup Series market. Speculation has swirled that he will leave RFR at season’s end for a fourth team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Edwards’ former teammate, Matt Kenseth, made the transition prior to the 2013 season and enjoyed a sterling seven-win campaign in his first year with the Toyota-backed organization.
The Missouri native acts as his own agent and has been mum on the subject. When asked how his current team has handled any distractions stemming from his possible defection, Edwards brushed it off in his typical fashion.
“I think you guys (in the media) worry about that more than we do,” Edwards said. “We come out here and race every week and the mission is to win the championship. So for me it’s really simple — I just have to give the best I can every week, and that’s it.”
During Edwards’ last free agent courting session, in 2011, it was a virtually accepted belief that he would jump ship at Roush for JGR’s No. 20 ride. A major push by Ford Racing kept him in-house, though, and Edwards, who notched one win and 19 top-5 finishes that year, enjoyed the points lead through much of that summer. He finished strong, losing the championship in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Since that season, he has totaled only 16 total top-5 finishes.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.