Friday July 31st, 2009

Carl Edwards was on top of the NASCAR world. Literally. This was late last January, and Edwards was flying his private jet over Lake Norman, N.C., the epicenter of planet NASCAR. Located just north of Charlotte, it's where more than 90 percent of the drivers, crewmen, owners and series officials live.

Edwards isn't one of them. He still receives his mail in his hometown of Columbia, Mo., and as he flew over Lake Norman on that cold winter morning on his way to a preseason test session at Rockingham (N.C.) Speedway, he believed that his status as an outsider was going to help him win the 2009 Sprint Cup championship.

"I don't want to have close friendships with other drivers," Edwards told me as I rode shotgun in the cockpit. "I don't want to be thinking about personal relationships when I'm on the track. I'm there for one reason: to win. And I don't want anything clouding my judgment, like, 'Should I be afraid to race this guy hard because he's my friend? Do I go easy on him?' That's a big reason why I don't stay in Charlotte like almost everyone else. I need to get away from NASCAR. And I know I'm faster on Sundays because I spend my time away from racing in Columbia."

Well, so far, not so good for Edwards in 2009. Though 20 races last season, he had three victories. Through 20 races this season, he's winless. Worse, he currently only has nine top-10 finishes -- Tony Stewart leads the circuit with 16 -- and Edwards has only cracked the top 10 once in his last five starts. It begs the question: What, exactly, is wrong with Edwards, who won a series-high nine races last season and finished second in the final standings to Jimmie Johnson?

It starts with his team, Roush-Fenway Racing. There's no question that the Roush stable has fallen behind Hendrick Motorsports. Despite starting the year fast -- Roush's Matt Kenseth won the first two races of '09 -- all the Roush Fords have struggled over the summer. Their big problem? The Roush cars simply aren't turning through the corners as smoothly as the Hendrick-powered Chevys, which is forcing the Roush drivers to lift off the gas in places that the Hendrick drivers aren't. There is still time for the Roush team to hit on something in their setups and catch Hendrick -- and, frankly, I think Roush will, which should set up another compelling duel between Roush and Hendrick for the championship this fall -- but there's a chance that Roush's Kenseth and Greg Biffle (currently 12th and 11th in the standings, respectively) won't make the Chase.

Edwards, in fifth place, is essentially a lock to advance to the 10-race playoff. And he should be very, very fast on Sunday at Pocono Raceway. In early June Edwards dominated at Pocono, leading a race high 103 laps. The only reason he didn't win was because Tony Stewart gambled on fuel and took the checkered flag in a game of fuel mileage. Edwards finished second.

Edwards has always had a good feel for the track. He won this race last year, which generated momentum for his team that carried him all the way to the Chase -- he went on to win two of the next of three events after Pocono -- and nearly to the championship. Remember: Edwards likely would have won the Cup if he hadn't been overly aggressive in October at Talladega, where he caused a late-race wreck while vying for the lead.

Out of necessity, Edwards has been far more conservative on the track this season. He knows he can't afford any major missteps. Because he's only fifth in the standings, two finishes of 30th or worse would put him on the Chase bubble. So Edwards, against his racing nature, has practiced an abundance of caution over the summer.

That won't change on Sunday. But if this race doesn't come down to fuel mileage, it shouldn't matter. Edwards will be driving the same car he piloted at Pocono in June, and it says here it will take him to place he's yet to visit in 2009: Victory Lane.

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