Edwards still driving desperately 10 years later

SPARTA, Ky. – Carl Edwards came to the Kentucky Speedway in July of 2003 on the upswing. He had a pair of runner-up finishes and four overall top-five places in a stretch of seven races on the NASCAR truck circuit racing for Jack Roush. Edwards was feeling good about his chances for then-named Kroger 225 event. There was also some desperation in his driving.

Edwards came to Kentucky without a primary sponsor.

“I had a lot of faith but I didn’t have any confidence then and I didn’t know if I could do it,” Edwards said on Friday.

Ten year ago, Edwards left the Kentucky Speedway with the first NASCAR victory of any sort in his career. He followed up his victory at Kentucky with a fourth place at Gateway, a fifth place at Michigan and then winning back-to-back weeks at O’Reilly’s Raceway Park and Nashville.

Sixty-three celebratory back flips later, including 20 on the Sprint Cup circuit, Edwards still races for Roush Fenway with a sense of desperation. He is currently second in the Sprint Cup standings, 25 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, but well set up to earn a spot in the Chase for the Cup. For all of the winning Edwards has done in his career, the ultimate goal of a Sprint Cup season championship has eluded him.

“There’s always some reason it’s the most important race of your life but back then there was so much happening in my life and I had this opportunity,” said Edwards shortly after he qualified second behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and just ahead of Johnson for Saturday’s Quaker State 400. “Jack told me he’d run for one year, and I thought that was really gracious. We didn’t have a sponsor and all of the pressure was on. I won that race and then we won at ORP and then we won at Nashville and we got Superchips to come on board and it was off from there in a good way.”

Without a primary sponsor for that race at Kentucky 10 years ago, Edwards and his team ran their Ford F-150 with a decal depicting Nicholasville, Ky., brain cancer patient Steve Shearer as well as the message: “Help Steve Shearer and thousands of others in the fight against brain cancer” on its side. Shearer’s sister Linda had a friend with connections with the Roush team and they were able to set up the surprise for him.

Steve Shearer had been given a one-year life expectancy diagnosis when doctors first discovered tumors in his brain in 2002. Friday morning, he and his sister were guests of Edwards.

“(Shearer) gave me a different perspective on life that day. He’s cancer free now, so he beat the odds, which is a miracle,” said Edwards. “I can’t believe 10 years later that I’m standing here next to the UPS Ford Fusion. If you had said then that I’d be standing here next to Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the starting grid, and be second in points and have 20 Cup wins, I just couldn’t have imagined it. I’m very fortunate.”

Edwards ran a limited Sprint Cup schedule in 2004 for Roush Fenway before earning a full-time ride in 2005. He has made 317 Sprint Cup starts, finishing in the top 10 of 52.4 percent of his races (166) and in the top five of race results 30.9 percent (98) of the time.

That kind of consistency and success has been a part of Edwards no matter what level of NASCAR he has raced. He started 242 of a possible 244 Nationwide races from 2005-2011, winning 37 times, placing in the top five 129 times and in the top 10 173 times. Edwards had six victories to go along with 22 top five finishes and 33 top 10 places in his first 57 races on the Camping World Truck Series.

Johnson won at Pocono on June 9 to build a 51-point lead on Edwards, who finished 18th, but that advantage has been cut by more than half after Edwards placed eighth and third, respectively, the last two races at Michigan and Sonoma. There are 10 races remaining until the Chase for the Cup begins on Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway. Edwards would appear to be comfortably in position to earn one of the 10 automatic qualifying spots for NASCAR’s playoffs.

But he’s racing with a sense of desperation. Edwards has seen Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart win Sprint Cup championships by getting hot at the right time of the year.

“I want to be leading the points,” said Edwards. “I want to go win three more races, be dominating, take off and lead the whole thing for the rest of the year. I think that’s good for your guys. I know it’s good for me.”