Carl Edwards was ebullient after finishing second at Atlanta last Sunday.
He's typically an excited guy any time he runs in the top five, his natural enthusiasm for racing is accelerated, but what had him jazzed to his highest point this season was leading 32 laps. They were the most that Edwards has had the No. 99 Ford out front in his last 46 Sprint Cup races.
You can understand Edwards' enthusiasm about his performance. He'd led only 13 laps in the intervening 45 races. Atlanta cranked up his motor to full throttle and he declared himself a legitimate contender in the Chase.
"Tony (winner Stewart) had such a fast car out there at the end, but we're back," Edwards proclaimed. "We're doing it. We're scoring more points than anybody. I'm excited about going to Richmond. I'm real excited about starting the Chase. We had something tonight and that's a blast."
Edwards has every reason to be happy about his performance in the past eight races and that leads to optimism going into the Chase. He's had two second places, two thirds, a fifth, sixth, seventh and 12th while jumping from the Chase bubble spot of 12th in the points to fifth. He's ready to go to Richmond on Saturday, and he can race with a take-no-prisoners attitude to get his first win since Homestead-Miami in the season finale in 2008.
It's been an impressive and promising run, but will Edwards have the speed to consistently run with Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin in the Chase? Can he close the deal and notch a win or two in the 10 races that determine the championship?
Truth is, Edwards isn't quite there yet. He's a dark horse at best.
Roush-Fenway Racing has made performance gains this season. The new Ford engine from Roush-Yates that came on line for full use halfway through the regular season has been a better weapon in the arsenal. Roush-Fenway also has developed a front suspension package that has moved the team closer to the front on the intermediate tracks, but on the short tracks it has been run only at Bristol. Greg Biffle, who is Chase-bound with Roush-Fenway teammates Edwards and Matt Kenseth, plans on using Richmond as a test for the suspension.
"We haven't had our new front suspension package on a short track yet, "Biffle explained. "Yes, we did race Bristol, but that's kind of its own animal and it doesn't really qualify. I'm kind of curious to see how it runs at places like Richmond, Loudon, Phoenix and Martinsville.
"We've really proved it can run well so far at Chicago, Indy, Pocono, Michigan and Atlanta. The package has been good, so my outlook is, 'How is it going to work on these short tracks? How is it gong to turn? Is it going to have forward drive?' That's kind of what I'm looking for."
Biffle has Ford's only win this season in Cup: at Pocono in early August.
Chevrolet has the Hendrick-produced package ofJohnson with five and the Richard Childress-built cars of Harvick with three, and both drivers have more top-fives than Edwards. Toyota has five from Hamlin and three from Busch at Gibbs. Dodge's Kurt Busch, at Penske, has two wins and more top-fives and top-10s than Edwards, and he's a dark horse, too.
Edwards is Ford's best chance for the championship, but with the new motor and front suspension, his package is less developed than those of Johnson and Harvick. They're the frontrunners going into the Chase. Still, Edwards has become a believer in momentum. He knows he'll need it.
"I never used to believe in momentum," Edwards said in the post-race media session at Atlanta. "But I think for us, I've never run so poorly for so long...and now I'm seeing this return. I think I understand the team more than I understand where we've been gaining. And so for that reason, I believe in this momentum that we have and I believe it will apply to future races.
"Now, you can't do anything about a cut tire or a broken spring or something like that, but at least we've proved to ourselves the last couple of months that we can do it and that feels good for us."
Edwards was runner-up to Johnson in the 2008 championship, losing by 69 points. He won three of the last four races and had eight top-fives in the Chase, but problems at Talladega (29th) and Charlotte (33rd) prevented him from taking the championship. In all, Edwards had nine wins that year.
"I know we don't look like we did in 2008, but we're better set to go race for that championship now than we've ever been," he said.
Edwards believes in himself and his team, and that's important. He's had a good, solid season. A win before 2010 adjourns would make it outstanding.