October 27, 2011
By Nicholas Schwartz
It’s proving impossible to derail Carl Edwards in 2011, as he draws ever closer to winning his first career Sprint Cup Championship.
Over the course of his illustrious career, Edwards has failed to live up to expectations in the final third of the season, ultimately flaming out at the most inopportune times while Jimmie Johnson invariably takes the honors.
But with just four races to go, following the last real wild-card race in the bunch, Edwards finally looks like a man who controls his own destiny, and is on the precipice of what may be simultaneously the most spectacular, yet unexciting Chase run NASCAR has ever seen.
Edwards has not missed a beat this post-season, even at Talladega, when he spent the vast majority of his time coasting along in the rear of the pack. As Chase contenders fell out of the picture left and right during the frenetic final laps, Edwards made a move to the front at exactly the right time, and extracted an 11th place finish out of what could have easily been a 30th.
That comes as no surprise to Edwards loyalists, who have watched similarly straightforward performances all year long. Qualify well, execute a well-thought out strategy, miss out on the accidents and finish in the top-10, seems to be the mantra of the No. 99 team in 2011 -- and it might just win them a title -- despite not winning a race since early March.
In a series where the rewards of winning have been routinely ratcheted up over the past few years, Carl Edwards is winning the Sprint Cup the old way, by prioritizing a bunch of good finishes over a few great ones, and by letting sheer consistency do the talking. Sure, NASCAR can award bonus points for winning a race and shuffle up the Chase order after Richmond with favor given to the number of victories attainted, but when a driver can rattle off finishes of P4, 8, 3, 5, 3 and 11, it matters not.
Take a look at the numbers. Edwards has recorded 16 top-5 finishes (which is two more than the second-place driver in that same category, Kyle Busch), and 22 top-10s (two more than second-place Jimmie Johnson).
What’s perhaps even more impressive is Edwards’s ability to conjure up a decent finish even when the breaks don’t go his way, or when he’s battling an ill-handling race car. Edwards has finished in 30th place or worse three times all season, at Pocono (June), Daytona and Michigan.
Even when Edwards has a bad run, he tends to make up for it the next week. He bounced back from his Pocono 37th with a fifth place finish at the first Michigan race of the year, and atoned for his 37th at Daytona in July with a top-5 in Kentucky.
None of that will get your picture in the paper on Monday morning, but Edwards is focused on a bigger prize -- one that has eluded him even in years such as 2008, where he took the checkered flag an incredible nine times but still ended up behind Johnson after Homestead.
If Edwards is able to hold on to his 14 point advantage over second-place Matt Kenseth and win his first title with only one race victory to his name, NASCAR is suddenly back where it started eight years ago before the Chase was implemented. Then, in 2003, Kenseth parlayed a year strikingly similar to Edwards’ campaign in 2011 into his first championship, despite only winning one race -- strangely enough -- also at Las Vegas.
In an officially unrelated move the next season, NASCAR unveiled the original Chase for the Nextel Cup, which remodeled the points allotment to incentivize winning races and was the backbone of the slightly updated playoff system under which we now operate. With such favor given to race-winners, this type of tranquil journey to a title wasn’t supposed to be possible, but Edwards is once again flipping the script on NASCAR.
The 2011 Chase has been widely received as one of the best ever, but what might come in the off-season if Edwards is to reign supreme? Could we see an even larger amount of bonus points for winning, or will NASCAR -- for once -- stand pat?
If you would like to learn more about Nicholas, please check out his web site at Sports By Schwartz. Nicholas is a Managing editor and sportswriter for The Duke Chronicle at Duke University.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.