Carl Edwards is still pining over the Lady in Black.
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While he might not want to admit it, she’s the one that got away.
Last year’s loss at Darlington Raceway, when Regan Smith outdrove Edwards on the last run, cost the Roush Fenway racer a victory in the Southern 500 and potentially the 2011 Sprint Cup championship.
“We’ve been waiting since that last restart a year ago to come back here,” Edwards said. “Everyone talks about this being one of the biggest races and, for me, it really is for our whole team. We would really like to win this race.
“The track has aged really well. The pavement is a little more forgiving right now, so you can slide the car around a little bit more. It’s more fun than it’s been the last couple of years, in my opinion, so it’s gonna be a heck of a race. It’s just a cool place to come race and I’m glad we’re here.”
Edwards has not won a race since Las Vegas last season – 43 races ago. This season, the No. 99 Ford didn’t lead its first lap until Kansas – eight races into the season. The first sign of contention from Edwards came at Richmond International Raceway, traditionally not one of his strongest tracks. However, the success was short-lived. Edwards was busted for jumping the restart after leading 206 laps. He was forced to serve a drive-thru penalty with less than 80 laps remaining in the race and finished 10th.
Edwards understands what happened at Richmond. Despite the mishap, the race was “a huge confidence booster” for the entire team a track that he considers “a thorn in our sides.”
“The silver lining is regardless of the results of the race show, we know how fast we were,” Edwards said. “That’s 200 and something laps we led. What did we lead, one before that race? And that’s one of our toughest tracks. I don’t really think I had to pump the guys up, but I went to the shop the following Monday. There was nobody hanging their heads. They’re pretty confident.”
He acknowledges that crew chief Bob Osborne has been experimenting with different setups hoping that something pays off. Ten races into the season, however, Edwards has two fifth-place finishes, six top 10s and is currently 11th in the points standings. But Edwards, who lost last year’s title on a tiebreaker of total wins, doesn’t appear concerned. Each win prior to the Chase is worth three additional bonus points once it starts.
“This sport will do that,” Edwards said. “I’ve been through this. I know the deal. We’ll be just fine. We’ll be strong. I don’t understand why we weren’t any faster at Phoenix. I don’t understand why we weren’t any faster at Las Vegas. But Bob has a method here. He has a plan. And when we go back and look at the setups we tried, we kind of stepped out of our box a little bit.
“Maybe that’s worth doing. Maybe we’ll learn something there. I might say Bob is really confident and maybe we’re building something. We just don’t know. We could go on a tear and win five out of the next six races or we might not lead a lap for the next two months. This sport is strange. There’s no secret, if there was we’d be doing it.”
One glaring difference in Edwards’ strategy this season is not running in the Nationwide Series. In seven full-time seasons – six where he was eligible for the drivers title – he won the title in 2007, finished second four times and third once. But Edwards doesn’t feel his lack of participation has affected his Sprint Cup performance.
“I’ve definitely been paying attention to it, though,” Edwards said. “For next year, I might think about trying to run a couple at the beginning of the year just to get things rolling. But I still think I have yet – and the team has yet – to see the benefit of it. Because I think at the end of the year, when everyone has been at it 30 weeks of every week racing, that’s when the real benefit will show, when we have a little more time to relax, when I’ve got more time to talk to Bob, that’s really when it’s going to show.
“That’s when I felt it last year. I made the definite decision that I need to be focused on this Cup car. The beginning of the year is a little different.”
Edwards cites three Cup champions – Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart – with little or no Nationwide involvement that have won 12 titles between them. Certainly, none of those drivers have suffered from not pulling double duty.
“I kind of feel like if I haven’t figured it out over the last eight years running both of ’em, that I’m never going to figure it out,” Edwards said. “What am I, like seven or eight years full-time now? I don’t want to look back 15 years in and say, ‘Wow, I never really gave that Cup series a 100 percent of my effort.’
“So I’m just going to give that a shot and if I’m wrong, I’ll go back and run ’em.”
Edwards qualified seventh for Saturday’s Southern 500 with a lap of 179.298 mph. Although Edwards wasn’t running the Nationwide Series race on Friday, he still planned to watch the event hoping to glean an advantage for the Cup race. Although Edwards says, “it’s an adventure every lap” at Darlington, in eight starts he’s posted three top fives and five top-10 finishes.
“It’s a really tough racetrack and it’s something as a driver at Darlington you have to sit there and mentally prepare even before practice,” Edwards said. "You have to think about how you’re gonna run the racetrack and remember all the places that could reach out and bite you.
"Our Ford is very fast. At the end of (first) practice we put up the fourth-fastest time. It’s handling well and I’m excited for this race. This is one of the most fun races on the schedule for me and our team.”
10: Years since a Dodge won a Cup race at Darlington. Sterling Marlin piloted the No. 40 to Victory Lane then.
11: Sets of tires Sprint Cup teams will have at their disposal for Saturday night’s race.
14: Lap advantage Ned Jarrett had over the field in the 1965 Southern 500 – still a track record.
When Matt Kenseth was asked whether he felt sorry for team owner Rick Hendrick, who has yet to win a race this season and remains stalled on 199 victories since October, the 2003 NASCAR champion channeled his inner Tony Stewart, “Yeah, I really feel bad for those guys. They’ve only won five out of the last six championships. Those guys are really on a tough run. I hope they get it straightened out.”