Edwards stumbles into Chase lead
Carl Edwards stood on Kansas Speedway's pit road – not in Victory Lane - Sunday afternoon enthusiastically congratulating his team and happily talking to reporters about his win.
Edwards actually finished fifth in the race. But considering the struggles he overcame in the preceding three hours, this top-five finish felt like a victory. And it was good enough to put him all alone — albeit by a single point — on top of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series championship standings.
More significantly, it sent a clear signal that Edwards is ready to take on five-time champ Jimmie Johnson at his own game: scoring top-five finishes on a bad day and whipping out a golden horseshoe when he needs it most.
"We were very, very fortunate," Edwards said after the race. "I am extremely grateful. I do not deserve to be sitting up here (in the top five). We should have finished 15th or 20th. It all worked out in our favor."
Edwards' No. 99 AFLAC Ford started on the front row but quickly retreated through the field shortly after the green flag dropped. For much of the race, he was mired among the reckless, nothing-to-lose, mid-packers. He even went a lap down and admitted to spending too much time helplessly watching the scoreboard and the better fortunes of his competition.
"I about ran into the fence trying to look at that thing off of turn two," Edwards joked. "I watched as best I could but you can't focus too much on that. You have to run your own race, as painful as it is."
Edwards was barely driving a top-20 car even in the final 50 laps of the race, when cautions started falling his way and the team made smart pit calls and faster pit stops.
"We had the wrong suspension setting in the car; Bob and I together in practice prepared the wrong set-up," Edwards explained. "They dropped the green (flag) and I realized we were in deep trouble.
"I was like, ‘man, this is not good.' I thought maybe it would be better the next lap but it wasn't so by the second lap I realized we were in trouble.
"It is just that usually for us, when we make those bad decisions, we can't recover like we did today. That is what I am really grateful for. That was amazing."
The recovery put him in position to beat Kevin Harvick across the finish line in a last-lap drag race, which directly resulted in Edwards' one-point advantage over Harvick in the standings entering Saturday night's race in Charlotte.
The 1.5-miler in NASCAR's backyard may represent another championship-making challenge for Edwards. While he won the All-Star race at Charlotte in May, Edwards is the only one among the three top contenders — Harvick and Johnson — without a points-paying victory there.
He's had top-five starts in the last two races at Charlotte, but has only three career top-five finishes — the last coming in 2009 (fourth place).
On paper, Johnson is the strongest among the three at Charlotte, where he has six wins – including season sweeps in 2004 and 2005. He never finished worse than runner-up from 2004-2006. But his last two finishes are 28th and 37th.
Harvick is the most recent winner of the trio, collecting his first victory at the track in May's Coca-Cola 600. He hasn't had a top-20 start in three years but has finished eighth, 11th and first in the last three Charlotte races.
Edwards' statistics favor him best in the clutch portion of the schedule.
His six combined wins at the Chase's final three tracks — Texas, Phoenix and Homestead — is tops among the 12 Chase drivers. He has three victories at Texas, one at Phoenix and two at Homestead.
Harvick has only won at Phoenix (twice) and Johnson hasn't won at Homestead, primarily because he's never had to.
If Edwards can hang with them until the homestretch, he may be in the best position for a close fight.
By the time the series rolls into Homestead on Nov. 18, Edwards may look back at this weekend's exercise in perseverance and good fortune as the performance that made a difference in landing him his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
"I feel like we have had two weeks with very lucky breaks," Edwards said. "But there is still so much racing left. We have run four races and it feels like we have run 400.
"I have a feeling there will be more moments that define this championship. All the way up to the last lap at Homestead, I think you will have to be on your game."
And he's game.