Preseason Rank: 3
As countless Subway commercials and covers of Men’s Health Magazine will attest, Carl Edwards is in peak physical shape. In fact, there aren’t many obstacles he can’t overcome. But this season, his personal challenge goes beyond a weight room, a bike trail or even a game of ultimate frisbee gone wrong. It’s a buzz kill so strong, a disappointment even the fittest man in NASCAR will struggle to conquer: the mental anguish of a championship runner-up hangover.
Edwards knows the feeling all too well. After a runner-up finish in 2008, he succumbed to pressure and finished 11th in the standings the following season, one year after trying to dethrone Jimmie Johnson. But it’s hard to imagine losing a series title in a more heartbreaking fashion than the way Edwards saw his prospects collapse last November.
Over the final 30 laps at Homestead, he sat second to Tony Stewart and could only watch in vain as the No. 14 stayed just out of reach. A tie after the season-ender meant that one more point, one more position on the track, in any of the previous 35 races could have gotten Edwards over the hump. Instead? He was cast aside for a “Smoky” celebration despite the best average Chase finish in the history of the postseason format: 4.9.
Since that fateful day, Edwards has said all the right things to try to convince us, and perhaps himself, that he can bounce back.
“There’s nothing saying this loss won’t spur a chain of events that could lead to some serious success in the future,” Edwards said after the checkers in Homestead. “I’m very aware that time is a funny thing. You can’t go back and change anything, but you can sure as hell change what’s going to happen — and I will be better and I will do a good job.”
In the shop, Edwards still has the tools necessary to try to duplicate that success in 2012. The only question is whether his team will be unwilling to make major changes, as so many runner-up operations have been in the past. Entrenched as the cornerstone of the Roush Fenway program, he begins Year 1 of a new, multi-year contract after testing the waters of free agency last season. Some initially felt that after a flirtation with Joe Gibbs Racing, there would be hard feelings within the RFR organization. Ford Motor Company had to get involved, offering a stock program to ensure his long-term future in the No. 99. But those negotiations, while icy on both sides, have faded through the warmth of Edwards’ public personality. Now that he’s viewed as Roush’s top dog, whatever this driver feels like he needs will be his for the taking.
Crew chief is one spot where Edwards won’t request a change. He and Bob Osborne have been together for all but one year — an experiment gone wrong in 2006 — of Edwards’ Sprint Cup career and have garnered 19 wins while making the Chase each of the last five seasons. The bigger problem lies within the mind of the ultra-competitive head wrench. Will the mechanic get over such a close loss as quickly as his driver claims the entire team will? Winning, of course, should help. The duo captured only one victory in 2011, which ultimately served as their title demise, but you’d think with seven runner-up showings, the odds are destined to tilt back in their favor this year.
Unlike some fellow Roushkateers, Edwards doesn’t have sponsorship woes. His public image made him a corporate favorite to push products, as evidenced by the addition of longtime NASCAR sponsor UPS to the No. 99 stable of sponsors. The role of former primary Aflac is unclear (though it is expected to return in some form), but longtime Nationwide Series backer Fastenal has stepped up to fill a part of the void, along with Kellogg’s, Best Buy, Valvoline, Subway and a handful of longtime associates.
So what is standing in Edwards’ way this year? On paper, very little. With Stewart viewed as “the guy who got hot at the right time,” Johnson reeling a bit and teammate Matt Kenseth without full funding, this championship looks like Edwards’ for the taking. But what did Yogi Berra say about sports being 90 percent mental? It’s what’s in his head that matters.
“There are lessons that I learned about myself, about competition, about failure and things about success; things that I could not have learned any other way,” Edwards says.
Perhaps Edwards will be that diamond in the rough that can buck the trend and put together another valiant championship effort. He certainly seems to be mentally stronger than most.
And perhaps we’d believe it a bit more if it wasn’t for that little thing called history.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
How does it feel to lose the championship in a tiebreaker? Ask Carl Edwards. Will he continue the trend of title runner-ups who fall flat on their face? Edwards fit into this category following his loss to Jimmie Johnson in the 2008 Chase. Going winless in 2009, Edwards finished 11th in the standings. He handled the loss to (Tony) Stewart about as well as any competitor could, so will that motivate Edwards in 2012?
“How will this loss affect him?” asks one media member. “I don’t think it will, really. It may make him hungrier.”
In addition, Edwards will also be cutting back his Nationwide Series schedule in 2012 and focusing more on the Cup effort, a move one insider believes could make the difference: “This kid is going to be on a tear. The cutting back on the Nationwide schedule may help, but might also make him more of a caged animal on the track on Sunday.”
“He’s certainly viewed as a champion-in-waiting,” another media member states. “Edwards isn’t as mentally fragile as a guy like (Denny) Hamlin. Hamlin’s loss (2010) was devastating to him and the team. I don’t think you’ll see that out of Edwards this year.”
Top 5s: 19
Top 10s: 26
Laps Led: 903
Laps Completed: 10,393
Lead Lap Finishes: 31
Bonus Points: 29
Races Led: 25
Average Start: 9.4
Average Finish: 9.3
After First 26 Races: 9th
Final Points Standing: 2nd
Driver Rating: 101.0 (2nd)
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