He sat in a lounge at Phoenix International Raceway, his characteristic toothy smile replaced by a look of seriousness as he pondered his lost season. This was last November and there were still two races remaining, but Carl Edwards was already looking forward to 2013.
Virtually nothing had gone right for him in 2012 -- he wasn't as sharp behind the wheel as he'd been in 2011 when he finished second in the championship, and his team had struggled on pit road as well -- and now he was trying to find a silver lining to his season. For nearly thirty seconds, he thought in silence. Then he said, "Can't really think of one, to be honest."
Edwards finished a career worst 15th in the final standings in 2012. He had career lows in top-fives (three) and top-10s (13), and he failed to win a race for the first time three years. After he lost the championship to Tony Stewart in 2011 by only one point, it was clear that the sting of that defeat had caused Edwards and his team to lose its edge. In a sport where a tenth of second can mean the difference between winning and tenth place, the slightest blur of focus can put your season into a downward spiral. This is what happened to the No. 99 team.
But this year, Edwards and his entire crew appear reinvigorated. He won at Phoenix on March 3, finished fifth at Las Vegas the following week, and came in fourth at Fontana on March 24. Through six races, he ranks seventh in the standings as the Cup circuit on Saturday night will stop at Texas Motor Speedway, which is one of Edwards' best tracks on the NASCAR schedule. In 16 career starts at the 1.5-mile oval, he has three wins, and in his last four starts at Texas, he's made two top-three runs.
Edwards has long been considered one of the series' top racers at intermediate-length tracks like Texas, which is one reason he should be a threat to win the championship if he can qualify for the Chase. Why? Because five of the 10 playoff races are held at these tracks on which he simply has an instinctive feel, the way some golfers prefer certain courses because they fit their eye.
So Carl Edwards is my pick to take the checkers on Saturday night.
Here are four other drivers to watch in the Lone Star State:
1. Jimmie Johnson
After winning last Sunday at Martinsville, Johnson regained the points lead, jumping over Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski. It would surprise no one in the garage if the No. 48 team stays in this position in the standings for the foreseeable future.
Johnson thoroughly dominated at Texas last fall when he won the pole and took the checkered flag. The No. 48's qualifying efforts have improved so far in 2013, and Johnson has started third or better in three of the six races. He won from the pole last Sunday and if he starts in the top three on Saturday night, expect him stay near the front for the entire race. It's starting to look like Johnson could be on his way to eight-to-ten wins this season.
2. Greg Biffle
Biffle has been steady the past two weeks, coming in sixth at Fontana and ninth at Martinsville. He's currently fifth in the standings.
Like his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Edwards, Biffle typically excels at intermediate-length tracks. In 18 starts at TMS, Biffle has two wins and seven top-five finishes. He's also earned $3.334 million at the track. He won this race last spring and should be good for a top-five on Saturday night.
3. Brad Keselowski
Though he's yet to reach Victory Lane this season, Keselowski has been on one of the most consistent drivers in the Cup series. His average start (7.3) and average finish (7.2) are far better than when he won the title last season (16.2 and 10.1, respectively) and he's already had four top-five finishes, tying him with Kyle Busch for the most in the sport.
Last fall, Keselowski led 75 laps and finished second to Johnson at Texas. He should again run with the leaders for the majority of the race on Saturday night.
4. Joey Logano
Though Logano finished only 23rd at Martinsville last weekend, he was mindful of other drivers on the track, gave space to faster cars, and generally had a quiet afternoon. After being involved in high-profile dust-ups with Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart the previous two races, this was precisely what Logano needed.
In nine career starts at Texas, his average finish is only 23.6, but he's never had a car that's as fast as what he's driving now. He should be able to stay near the front of the field, but it says here that he won't have the speed to catch Carl Edwards.