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Edwards Tries but Can't Hide He's a Contender
Perhaps Carl Edwards figures jumping off tall buildings or strapping himself into F-16 fighter jets for flights of fancy will be distracting to others, making them forget for a moment that he's proving himself a legitimate contender to take away Jimmie Johnson's Sprint Cup crown.
It is not working, however, with Jack Roush. The owner of Edwards' No. 99 Ford that swept to victory in last Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway apparently had no idea that Edwards recently took a 108-story plunge off the Stratosphere Casino, Hotel and Tower.
"What did you do?" the boss wanted to know.
"I jumped off the Stratosphere," a smiling Edwards replied. "You may be the only person in all of Las Vegas who doesn't know I jumped off the Stratosphere. It's a tall building downtown."
Roush still didn't get it.
"Were you in a balloon?" he asked.
"No, I was tied to a cable," Edwards said. "You can see Jack is really concerned about me."
This prompted Roush to remind Edwards of the time two years ago when his driver broke a foot while playing Ultimate Frisbee. That was bad enough, he intoned.
"I can't imagine what my impression would be if you cracked your head or something," Roush added.
Forgive Edwards if he's more nervous about being anointed the heir apparent to Johnson's throne than he was about jumping off a tall building. He's been there, done that -- and it didn't work out too well for him.
Coming off a 2008 season in which he won a series-high nine races, including three of the past four, Edwards was the obvious and hot choice to knock off Johnson coming into the 2009 season. Instead, he failed to win a single race and struggled to an 11th-place finish in the standings as Johnson cruised to the fourth of what is now five championships in a row.
That's why Edwards practically begged folks not to install him as this season's chic pick to end Five Time's reign after his No. 99 Ford claimed victory in each of the 2010 season's final two races. The first win at Phoenix last fall broke a 70-race winless streak filled with frustration that was the longest of Edwards' Cup career.
But now he's won three of the past five Cup races, dating back to last year. No matter how many tall buildings he dives from, or how many fighter jets he flies in (he took part in that little side event at Nellis Air Force Base just down the road from LVMS last Thursday), Edwards knows what is next on the expectation meter if he keeps this up.
He won at Vegas in 2008, too, by the way. But that win was tainted by the fact that his car was found in post-race technical inspection to have undergone an "unauthorized aerodynamic modification." He was docked 100 driver points, dropping him from first to seventh in the standings at the time. And when the Chase commenced, he was denied the 10 bonus points that would have come as the result of the victory for seeding purposes.
Asked Sunday the difference between then and now, Edwards deadpanned: "We're making it through tech, aren't we?"
The big picture
Yet Edwards knew the question everyone really wanted answered Sunday is whether 2011 will be different than 2008 when it comes to the really big picture. He doesn't know the answer yet, of course, but he does like where his team seems to be headed.
"I guess the biggest difference between then and now from my perspective is that I feel like I have a better understanding of how the sport works," Edwards said. "I am more prepared to use these fast race cars and do a better job to try to win this championship.
"That's something Jack and I have talked a lot about over the years. There is definitely a process to becoming the best you can be at this level because all the guys are so savvy. I feel I am in a better position to get all the points we can and all the wins we can this year."
Sunday's win was especially sweet because Edwards thought he had the car to beat a week earlier in Phoenix, only to have Kyle Busch inadvertently wreck him and ruin his day. That came on the heels of finishing second to winner Trevor Bayne in the season-opening Daytona 500.
"This is the best start to a season that I have ever had and you know Daytona could have gone either way. There was a lot of luck involved in our good finish at Daytona," Edwards said. "Phoenix was a very strong performance from everyone, but we had bad luck there. I felt [Sunday in Vegas] we had a solid top-three car all day. Those are three different types of tracks with success on all three, so I am really excited about the season. This is a great start."
Roush tempered all the enthusiasm with a gentle reminder that it is so very early in the season. So please, don't start with the championship talk just yet, he pleaded -- even as he reluctantly admitted to the sweet possibilities of this season himself.
"It is way too early to be thinking championship," Roush said. "We can't make a misstep and keep our eye on the ball. We can't squander the opportunity we have now that we are running better than we did last year. It certainly feels more like 2008, even better."
In the meantime, the boss might want to warn Edwards, who celebrates each win (when he's not nursing a broken foot) with a backflip, to tone down the off-the-track antics. Then again, why start now? Edwards has always been an active, out-of-the-box type of guy away from the track and Roush always has had the same message about that aspect of his driver's life.
"Each time I've had some kind of injury, it was pretty much the same from Jack: 'If you're going to be dumb, you've got to be tough.' That's all he said. You don't get a lot of sympathy from Jack," Edwards said.
Which is why Edwards figured it was best to keep Roush in the dark about the jump off the top of the Stratosphere, a stunt aimed at drumming up publicity for last Sunday's race. "I don't think there were going to be any minor injuries if something went wrong with this one," Edwards joked.
Nothing did, and so far -- despite the hiccup a week earlier at Phoenix -- not much else has for the latest legitimate championship contender in the Cup Series.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer