For Carl Edwards, the stakes of his decision -- whether to leave Roush Fenway Racing at season's end or stay -- were made clear last weekend by Jeff Gordon.
"Let's say he goes somewhere else -- they're done [for 2011]," Gordon said at Indianapolis. "I just don't see them winning the championship knowing that they're leaving. I may be wrong. But if he stays, it might have just been a blip and then get back on track."
Five days after Gordon uttered these words, Edwards made it official: He's staying at Roush for the foreseeable future, signing what is believed to be one of the most lucrative contracts in the history of NASCAR. And Edwards may well be worth the money.
Not only is he a sponsor's dream -- after all, that toothy smile of his comes off well on television -- but also he's the current leader in the points in the Sprint Cup series. And now that his team knows he won't be bolting for Joe Gibbs Racing at season's end, which would have made him a lame duck driver (and which, as Gordon alluded, is normally the death knell to a team's title hopes), Edwards must now be considered one of the favorites to be hoisting the Cup at Homestead at season's end.
In fact, I think the rewards for re-signing Edwards will be immediate for owner Jack Roush: Edwards is my pick to win this Sunday at Pocono, where, in 14 starts, Edwards has two career victories. This weekend he'll be piloting chassis No. RK-732, a car that won at Las Vegas earlier this season, finished second at Darlington and 37th at Pocono after Edwards suffered a broken valve. So, in other words, this may be the top Ford in the No. 99 team's fleet.
As long as Edwards can avoid mechanical trouble -- and that's a big question mark, considering his last race at Pocono -- expect Edwards to run near the front most of the afternoon and then pull away late for his second victory of the season.
But even if Edwards doesn't win, his extension with Roush will be the big story in the Sprint Cup series this weekend. There's little doubt that his contract situation was distracting the team -- he hadn't finished higher than 13th in his last two races -- but now that distraction is gone. If Edwards goes on to capture his first Cup championship, he may very well look back at this week as the critical turning point of his season.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching on Sunday during the 500 miles at Pocono, which traditionally is one of the most time-consuming and least riveting races on the Cup schedule.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Something still isn't quite right with the five-time defending Cup champion. After leading some laps at Indy last week during the middle portion of the race, Johnson simply didn't have the speed to run with the leaders, as he faded to a 19th-place finish. As I wrote in the magazine this week, Indy is the most accurate barometer for predicting who will run well in the Chase, so that poor race doesn't exactly bode well for Johnson.
Yet remember: Johnson is still second in the points, even though he has only a mere seven top-five finishes this season. Johnson could easily pad that total on Sunday. He has two wins at Pocono and, in 19 career-starts at the triangle-shaped track, he has an average finish of 9.1. Johnson normally starts to emerge at this point in the season. If he struggles on Sunday, it may be time for Johnson-backers to officially start fretting.
2. Paul Menard
Could Menard possibly qualify for the Chase? In a word: yes. A week after winning the first Cup race of his career, Menard is now in 14th place in the standings and, if the playoffs started today, would qualify as one of two wild cards.
Yet Menard has hardly performed like a Chase contender for the majority of the season. Before taking the checkers at Indy, he had only five top-10 finishes. But Menard could surprise again this weekend. He'll be driving the same car he used to qualify second at Pocono earlier this season -- showing that he has enough speed to run with the leaders -- and he finished 14th in that June race. On Sunday, he'd certainly be happy with a repeat result of that event.
3. Kurt Busch
Driving a backup car at Pocono in June -- Busch crashed his primary during practice -- Busch won the pole and then finished second. This Sunday he'll be behind the wheel of a spanking new Dodge. This will feature all of the latest technological gains that Busch's crew chief, Steve Addington, has discovered in recent weeks. Will this translate into a victory? Possibly.
4. Jeff Gordon
Gordon dominated the final portion of the June race at Pocono and cruised easily to the win. Considering that Gordon had the dominant car last weekend at Indy -- and, as mentioned, that race often serves as a championship harbinger -- Gordon should be very, very fast on Sunday. Still, I don't see him beating Edwards. But suddenly, with six races left in the regular season, the championship picture is starting to become more clear, and from where I sit it should come down to a sprint between five drivers: Edwards, Gordon, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch.