Could this be the year Carl Edwards finally wins the Sprint Cup?
Certainly, the 32-year-old competitor possesses a dangerous combination of confidence and maturity, plus he has the experience of losing three Sprint Cup championships by narrow margins.
With Roush Fenway Racing investing heavily in both its driver and resources, the No. 99 team seems perfectly poised to finally reach the pinnacle of NASCAR — and bring home the Sprint Cup.
“I don’t think it’s the fastest we’ve been,” Edwards said. “In 2008, we were screaming. We figured that yawed rear-end housing would be quicker.
“But right now, the pit crews are awesome. The cars are light, well-engineered. We understand the things that make them fast. The engines are the best they’ve ever been — well, since I’ve been here. I feel like we’re the best team we’ve ever been.”
Edwards is basing some of that on what happened in 2012.
“If you look at last year, even on the days when we didn’t have the best setup, when (crew chief) Bob (Osborne) and I completely screwed it up, we were able to get top 10s,” he said. “We were able to do well on pit road. I feel like we’re one of the real legitimate teams right now. If you look at the 48 (of Jimmie Johnson), the 24 (of Jeff Gordon) and all those guys, I feel like we can compete with them in qualifying, on pit road, on long runs and short runs — and that’s what it takes.”
Atop the pit box, Osborne isn’t going to change his strategy. After the team finished fourth in the 2010 points standings, Osborne took a step back. He asked himself, “Why am I putting so much pressure on myself? It’s killing me.”
Osborne needed to remind himself how much he enjoyed his job, that racing was about having fun. And given his team’s effort, he doesn’t feel his men will require incentive to come out fighting in 2012.
“I don’t have to give my guys a pep talk,” Osborne said. “My guys understand how well we performed last year, and they have confidence in their ability — as I and Carl have confidence in their ability — that we’re going to go as a team and perform as well as we did in 2011. Hopefully, we’re in a little bit better situation when it comes to championship time.
“I’m going to take 2012 the same way I took 2011. It’s important for me to perform well at every race track, and the best way for me to do that is one race at a time.”
While it would appear nothing could be as painful for Edwards as having last year’s title unfold into a tie-breaker, which he lost because he had fewer wins than Tony Stewart, the RFR driver insists the team took a lot of pride in its accomplishments.
"We did a very good job and the best we could and the true test for us will be to go to work and not hang our heads but to be motivated by that,” Edwards said.
The No. 99 took a big step in that direction by securing the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“I don’t know how much it actually tells you,” Edwards said, “but it feels like this pole proves that our whole team went back and worked hard and people didn’t complain and whine and make excuses. They got to work and this is the best we have ever come to the Daytona 500 since I have been here, for seven years or so.
“I am really proud. You never know how a group is going to take a loss like that, but I am really proud of our guys. That pole feels good.”
Of course, Stewart answered Edward’s pole by winning his Gatorade Duel qualifying race Thursday and will line up third Sunday — directly behind the No. 99 Ford.
Stewart isn’t sure a rivalry will develop with Edwards because the drivers “have so much respect for each other.”
“But I kind of thought that, too, after we ran second the other night and then Carl got the pole,” Stewart said. “I thought, man, we’re both picking up right where we left off. I hope it’s that way for both of us.
“It would be great to start the year off like we finished it last year, to have a run like that. But it’ll only be good for NASCAR if both of us can run that strong against each other and be head-to-head each week.”
First up is the Daytona 500, where Edwards finished second to Trevor Bayne last year. But with the new restrictor plate rules and subsequent change in racing style, Edwards isn’t sure what to expect Sunday.
“I predict the unpredictable,” Edwards said. “I don’t think there is any way to predict what can happen. I just hope that when we come to the white flag that we have a shot at the race. If we can do that, we will be OK.”