Even as far back as last November, you could see this coming for Carl Edwards.
Moments after he had lost the 2011 Sprint Cup championship to Tony Stewart -- the two finished tied in points, but Stewart was awarded the title based on the tiebreaker of having more wins (five to one) -- Edwards climbed out of his No. 99 Ford that was parked on pit road at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With Stewart doing a celebratory burnout in the background, Edwards waved off a few reporters and spoke into the ear of his crew chief Bob Osborne, telling him that they did everything right but it just wasn't good enough. Then Edwards, with his chin up, told me that he had put his heart and soul into winning the title and that he was already eager to get started in 2012. His voice, naturally, was flavored with disappointment.
But the sting of losing the closest points battle in NASCAR history hit Edwards and Osborne hard. They said all the right things that night in Homestead -- how they were going to bounce back, how they were going to be in faster the following season -- but most longtime observers believed that there was a high likelihood that 2012 was going to be a lost season for the duo. Why? Because that's precisely what happened to Denny Hamlin and his crew chief Mike Forde in 2011 after they had narrowly lost the title to Jimmie Johnson in 2010. After all, in a sport where three-tenths of a second can be the difference between winning and 20th place, the slightest blur in focus can be devastating.
And so Edwards' struggles during the regular season can't be considered a surprise. Osborne left Edwards' pit box in July for health reasons and was replaced by Chad Norris, but Norris has failed to spark the team. Currently 12th in the standings, Edwards has only two top-five finishes (last year he recorded 19 top-five runs) and zero victories. Right now the only way he can advance to the Chase is to win one of the last two regular season races and then hope that the drivers currently with one win that are ranked 11th through 20th in the standings -- Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano -- don't reach Victory Lane again in the final two races of the regular season.
So can Edwards take the checkered flag either at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night or Richmond International Speedway on Sept. 8? Clearly his best shot will be at Atlanta, where he has three career wins in 14 starts. Edwards notched his first career Cup victory at the 1.5-mile track in 2005 when he out-drove Jimmie Johnson to the checkers, and since then Edwards has been one of the top drivers on the circuit on intermediate-length tracks such as Atlanta. In five of the last seven races at Atlanta Edwards has led at least 14 laps. Not surprisingly, this 1.5-mile track is one Edwards' favorites on the schedule.
"It's one lap at a time, one pit stop at a time," said Edwards. "Right now we have to be perfect and we have to really look at the big picture very often, reevaluate our goals. If we get in the race this weekend, halfway through the race somebody has trouble, if there's an opportunity to gain track position or to put somebody a lap down that we're battling points, we have to take advantage of all of those things."
The goal of the entire Roush-Fenway organization this weekend will be to get Edwards into Victory Lane. Roush drivers Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are Chase locks, which means they can help Edwards and Norris with the setup of the No. 99 Ford. Edwards' season is essentially on the line -- and I think, for the first time all season, he'll deliver a stellar performance. He's my pick to win on Sunday night.
Here are four other drivers to watch at Atlanta:
Gordon is in a similar position as Edwards: he needs one win to get in to the Chase. He's 14th in the standings and has one victory this season. If he can get one more checkered flag, he should advance as a wildcard -- as long as either Edwards or Kyle Busch don't win one of the next two races.
Back in 1992, Gordon made his first career Cup start on Atlanta on the day that Richard Petty made his final Cup start. Gordon finished 31st that afternoon (Petty, for the record, came in 39th), and since then Gordon has made 37 more starts at Atlanta, racking up five wins and an impressive average finish of 12.2. More significantly, he won this race last year; the track conditions haven't changed since then, which means the No. 24 team's setup notes from 2011 should give them an upper-hand over the field on Sunday.
Expect at least a top-five run from Gordon.
Busch's grasp on the final wildcard spot is tenuous. He's 13th in the standings but could lose his playoff ticket if he struggles over these next two weeks and a driver currently with one win either passes him in the standings or reaches Victory Lane.
Busch finished sixth last week at Bristol -- a disappointing result, given that it's his best track on the schedule -- and now he can't afford to be conservative at Atlanta. As I wrote last week, Busch has cut back on his driving duties this season, which I think has ultimately had a negative impact on him, but this weekend for the first time in 2012 he'll be driving in all three series at Atlanta: Trucks, Nationwide, and Cup. Will this sharpen his focus for Sunday's race? If it does, then he could wind up in Victory Lane and it certainly would cause him to re-think his schedule for next season.
With his spot in the Chase already secured, Johnson has nothing to lose on Sunday, which should be a scary thought for the rest of the field. Johnson has easily had the fastest car, on average, over the last month, and it would surprise no one if he simply drove away from the field once the green flag waved. Johnson finished third here in 2010 and second last season.
Newman has been relatively quiet this season, aside from wining at Martinsville in April. He only has three top-five runs in 2012 but he could sneak into the Chase if he can reach Victory Lane on Sunday.
Currently 15th in the standings, Newman has never won at Atlanta in 18 starts, but he has captured a record seven poles, which shows you he knows his way around the track. He'll likely need some racing luck on Sunday -- he has only two top-10s in his last 14 starts here -- but he's a longshot worth keeping an eye on.