DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's Friday, and Sprint Cup's most recent points-paying winner is busy running a different kind of race. A few minutes late for a Ford photo shoot, Carl Edwards is to walk briskly across Daytona's Fan Zone, darting through crowds and jumping behind the fence to walk his way toward Victory Lane. The Blue Oval manufacturer's greatest hope to win Sunday's 500-miler, NASCAR's Super Bowl, Edwards must now bowl over fawning admirers like he's a linebacker playing in the NFL version two weeks earlier.
It doesn't happen. The second we cross the gate, into the only sport where fans and athletes can mingle so naturally, the driver stops to sign an autograph for a fan. Two, three, four come by and then all of a sudden a good two dozen people get pictures, hugs, virtually anything they ask for before his PR director almost forcefully has to push him forward to avoid getting stuck there 'til Sunday. For a moment, it almost works, until he spots two kids in wheelchairs out of the corner of his eye mere steps from that final destination.
So what happens? This photo shoot changes into a personal one where the kids, Shane and Zac, are in charge as Carl delivers the smile, handshake and gentle words of encouragement that frame into a lifetime Kodak moment for them. He walks into the shoot five minutes late, but in 30 seconds no one cares: a joke about sunglasses, a few handshakes and everyone's as jovial and relaxed as the man who's spent two years reinventing himself to rise back to the top of their list.
That Zen-like happiness bodes well for Edwards entering this year's 500, a race he's never won but a battle he needs to wage on Sunday to draw first blood. This 2011 NASCAR season begins as the battle of "Jimmie Johnson vs. The Field" -- Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Edwards, Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin have all come up short the last five years, Johnson fighting off all championship challengers like Mike Tyson in his heavyweight prime. Now, after two straight victories to end 2010, Edwards' name has come up on the title card again, a trendy pick to be Johnson's toughest adversary ... and what better place to land the first punch than the Great American Race, right?
"It's really important to come out of here with something good, just because the morale in our shop, everybody is in a good mood right now at the No. 99 team," he said. "I'm having fun, [crew chief] Bob Osborne's having fun. It would be really, really cool to come out of here and just continue this momentum."
That's something Edwards never used to believe in, a week-by-week mentality that kept him on edge and in contention throughout a 2008 season where he won nine times, coming within 68 points of toppling Johnson while establishing himself among the sport's elite.
"I could have beat him, but I wrecked at Talladega, broke a part at Charlotte, and I look back and go, 'All I had to do is just finish 15th in both those races and I would have won the championship.'" he said. "What Jimmie does is somehow, him and Chad [Knaus] are immune to that pressure. They just do a good job of really making it look like other people mess up all the time. Which we don't! They just never mess up."
It's easy to gain that perspective two years later. In the short-term, back then came an ugly, 2009 mental hangover, typical of the second-place opponents knocked down during the Johnson era: No wins, seven top-5 finishes and just 164 laps led en route to 11th in the points. By the first 15 races of 2010, the team was on a 51-race winless streak, had led just once all season for two laps and stood precariously on the bubble of missing the Chase.
"The low point was sitting backwards in the dirt at Sonoma," Edwards said of a 29th-place finish the following week. "Two laps to go, we got spun out and I thought, 'This is over.' We're not going to make the Chase, we're not going to win a race. It was bad."
So rough that Edwards and Osborne, one of the longest-tenured crew chief pairs on the circuit (they've spent parts of seven seasons together) seemed headed toward a devastating divorce they didn't want. With Jack Roush making changes to struggling teammate Kenseth's squad, replacing his crew chief not once but twice, both Edwards and Osborne knew their backs were against the wall. What happened now would be a make-or-break upcoming stretch, one that could have left them down for the count.
"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want," he said of fighting his way back from the brink. "I learned to focus on my performance, that's really all you can do. The results are going to be whatever they're going to be."
The turnaround was barely noticeable at first, a sixth at Daytona giving them breathing room in the points. A round of new engineering simulations followed -- a noticeable gain in setups for Roush Fenway Racing across the board -- that sparked a dozen straight finishes of 12th or better, launching the No. 99 into the playoffs full steam before mechanical failure at Fontana derailed their chances. Even still, the final two races became a thing of beauty, 283 laps led in those two straight victories launching a charge to fourth in points and creating the aura his team was back on the rise. Suddenly, Daytona becomes the benchmark again, a rubber stamp of sorts as to whether the No. 48 and No. 99 cars can duel.
"It's beyond the comeback that I expected or it's really beyond what I hoped for," he said. "The end of the season crescendoed into dominance."
It's Saturday at Daytona, and Edwards is working toward keeping the momentum going off the track: holding court with hundreds of fans in front of his hauler. Playing the role of host as well as athlete, he's entertaining the crowd with jokes and an outgoing personality that's just as suited for TV as sliding behind the wheel: he's already completed a successful stint as Chase analyst for ESPN, his what-you-see-is-what-you-get personality appealing to the masses.
Of course, this crowd hasn't always been behind him, as 2010 packaged within it some serious challenges to his popularity. A penchant for what he felt was deserved on-track retaliation flared up in not one, but two incidents with Brad Keselowski in 2010. A scary flip of Keselowski that March was followed by a last-lap Gateway wreck in July, both incidents leaving him on probation not just with NASCAR, but also with a once-rabid fan base. In an era of driver safety, some felt those incidents stepped over the line even in the era of "Boys, Have At It."
But that's where the relative calm of Edwards' inner circle stepped in, especially in a drama-free last six months that include a second child on the way. Two-and-half years between title bids have been packaged with off-track maturity: a marriage to wife Kate, then daughter Anne last February, which have put life into a different perspective.
"The other thing I've learned is the people around you are the most important thing in your life," he said. "My wife is my best friend. I can talk to her about anything, and she supports me no matter what. If I never drove a race car again, or never won a race again or didn't make another dollar, she would love me the same way she does now. And that's a huge confidence booster for me, to know that I have someone like that. To know that no matter what happens at the racetrack, I've got a great home life. That's awesome."
Always close with family, Edwards' additions have formed the key within a tight inner circle he keeps around his hometown of Columbia, Mo., where he shies the spotlight and hangs with friends he's known his whole life. In a sport where drivers seemingly readjust their life around the hometown Mecca of Charlotte, Edwards now more than ever has rededicated himself to Missouri, able to escape the bright lights with a snap of the finger -- keeping himself mentally sharp without having to feel the pressure 24/7.
"Having good people like I have around me has helped me to stay confident," he says. "To stay focused and to believe in myself. That's key."
Sunday will dawn at Daytona, and Edwards will prepare to start the next chapter in his career, a first step toward making his mark in a contract year for Roush Fenway Racing (Edwards, like Harvick last year, won't make his decision until well into the 2011 season as performance will surely play a role in his future). The key to it all begins here; he's 0-for-6 in the 500, with just four top-5 finishes in 25 starts at Daytona and Talladega, but the hope is Ford's newer, more powerful FR9 engine holds the key inside two-car drafts everyone's trying to figure out. With cars losing half-a-second every time they choose to switch positions on-track, the Fords have shown an uncanny knack to resist the type of overheating when drafting that has dogged other rivals during Speedweeks -- including rival Johnson.
"We didn't know our engine would be suited to this type of racing," he claims. "But it seems to be. Matt Kenseth showed us we could push the entire time with the FR9. You still have to pull out and cool it; so that slows you down, but I don't think it slows you down as much as swapping."
The Fords will begin with a disadvantage, Edwards starting 22nd in the 43-car field while only two of the 11 Fusions qualified inside the top 20. The Duels were practice, but far from perfect as a weak finish between Edwards and teammate Greg Biffle left them plummeting out of contention. But for a man who's used to fighting an uphill battle, at peace more than ever these days with any circumstance, a midpack starting spot should be a minor obstacle once the green flag drops.
"I learned that even with the best effort and the most practice, you can still, due to circumstance, get split up and you can be screwed," he said. "You've got to really, really work together the best you can. That's the most important thing, to stay together.
"I don't let it keep me awake at night, thinking about winning it because [in plate racing] there's so much chance involved. This is one of those races where you just ... it's like the lottery. You just keep playing, keep playing ... eventually, you're going to win something."
Edwards smiles, turns away and finishes the interview. He's got a wife and daughter to see, a few more fans to sign for before the day begins while Johnson-Edwards: Part II could draw ever closer.
But that's when you realize, the second the green flag drops on the 500 Edwards finds himself with the most distinct advantage of all. The gift of family, persistence, and maturity has put him back in a position in life where's he's already won.