Carl Edwards was crestfallen. It was right there in front of him. It was his. And then it was snatched away. He paused, composed himself. Reconciled it. "That was a really good sandwich," he said, stunned as the waitress stealthed away a half-eaten grilled chicken on whole wheat and snap pea salad. "I wasn't done eating, guys."
Edwards never quite got to take that last bite. It's been that kind of fall. Losing his entrée at the Nationwide Series banquet luncheon in Orlando on Friday was simply the next -- more tasty, but less wrenching -- in the procession. Despite winning three of the last four races of the season in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series, the 29-year-old fell 21 points short of Clint Bowyer and 69 shy of Jimmie Johnson, who won a record-tying third straight title at NASCAR's highest level.
Edwards, who led the Cup series with nine wins, could analyze the Chase for the Championship -- specifically the race at Talladega where he admittedly caused an 11-car wreck and finished 29th, or the one at Charlotte where and ignition box relegated him to a devastating 33rd-place finish. But he's intent on moving past, cleansing his mind, filling up an offseason with personal milestone events to replace the professional ones that eluded him.
He will compete in the Race of Champions for the first time in London, and he's admittedly apprehensive about it. He and a large group of friends hope to bicycle Bangkok, Thailand, for a week or two. He will marry fiancée, Dr.Kate Downey. And he'll try to forget about the frustration of being very good, but not quite good enough, so far, in the Jimmie Johnson Era.
That's harder than he thought, even after finishing third or better in seven of 10 Chase races (and fourth in another). "It was the first thing my dad said," Edwards laughed. "I went over to his shop the other day, and he's like, 'You know its going to take you at least four years to top that, even if you do everything perfectly.' I said, "Thanks dad, I know." We're all aware of what Jimmie doing and it's a high bar he's setting."
A few questions with Edwards before he hops the plane to Thailand.
SI.com: Thailand? Really?Edwards: I don't know how long we're going to last on the bicycles, but we're going to go over there and try really hard not to rent a car, just ride bikes around and see the whole city for a week or two on bicycles. I know nothing about Thailand. I know nothing about Bangkok. We've got a group of people who are all in the same boat. That's what's going to be fun. We don't have any clue what we'll see. We tried to think of a place that was farthest, literally and figuratively, from Columbia, Missouri, and I'm thinking Bangkok, Thailand, could not be further from Columbia, Missouri, in so many ways.
SI.com: You going to bring a Sharpie for all the autograph hounds? Edwards: I do not believe I will be signing any autographs there.
SI.com: You don't expect to see a 99 hat as soon as you disembark from the plane. Edwards: If I see a 99 hat .... That will be awesome.
SI.com: Are you the type of person that says, "We got damned close" or the kind who beats yourself up because you had just a few bobbles in the Chase? Edwards: I can be both, but I find the 'we-were-damn-close' thing a lot easier to swallow. I mean, I know what we did wrong. I know where we lost our points, the wreck at Talladega. That was something that, going back, I can't say I won't get caught up in a wreck next year, but I will not cause a wreck next year. The ignition box at Lowe's, that was just amazingly bad luck. I feel it's not like we made mistakes or .... We didn't mess up. Jimmie just was perfect. They had perfect execution and perfect luck.
SI.com: Is it tough knowing you probably raced well enough to win a title in a normal kind of year (one without Jimmie Johnson racing in it)?
Edwards: It's just the way it is. It's the competition. I believe we scored more points than anyone the whole season, which is good. So I feel confident in our ability to do the job. And Jimmie, what he's done, I think it's not only good for him, its good for the sport that he can do that and have those kind of results. As much as I can be, I'm happy for him. He's a good guy. He deserves it.
SI.com: Have you ever missed a back flip and landed on your ass?
Edwards: I busted my ass at the Talladega short track (a year ago). Kenny Schrader won the race. It was an exhibition race and he got me, he said, "You've got to do a back flip for me." I finished second or third or something. So I did the back flip and there was maybe 500-600 people there, and I over-rotated and landed on my butt pretty bad and the crowd really enjoyed it. There were no cameras there, so I made it out of that one.
With the commercial future of U.S. automakers still entangled in a controversial $25-billion government bailout proposal and their futures in NASCAR a topic of nervous conversation within the sport, less-successful Sprint Cup teams are hoping to circle wagons to fight off woeful times.
Nowhere is the conversation more nervous or cryptic than surrounding Dodge, Sprint Cup's under-performer that would field just three major organizations in 2009 if Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates switches to manufacturer champion Chevrolet as part of its announced merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc. (Team Chip 'n Dale is the best new nickname in the garage, by the way)
Petty Enterprises co-owner Richard Petty suggested before the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway that Dodge teams could benefit from pooling their intelligence, like Chevrolet and Ford, but Tim Cindric, president of Penske Performance, isn't sure what his Dodge team would reap from such an agreement with Petty and Gillett Evernham Motorsports or peripheral teams. Especially, he said, because "I don't know if I could even tell who the Dodge teams are for next year.
"It's difficult when you have to open your books to organizations that you're not sure are going to be around or if you're not sure if they're going to be Dodge competitors in a short period of time," he said. "We're also all not in step with how long we're committed to Dodge. Those that are committed longer-term like we are, it would be a lot easier to do something like that, but then you get a situation where what do you know about the people sitting in the room with you and how long are they committed to their organization?"
Even in Petty's plea for Dodge teams to stop "working as independents" there was fuel for Cindric's concern. "Hopefully we can come to some of that [cooperation] this year, especially losing one Dodge team for sure, and I don't know about a couple of the rest of us," he said.
Cindric said the scheduling of Indy Racing League driver Helio Castroneves' federal tax evasion trial for March 2 does not necessarily mean Penske will release the two-time Indianapolis 500-winner and search for a driver it is sure would be available for a full season. Cindric said the organization will also not be swayed by possible negative reflection from Castroneves before the trial. "He's been indicted. He hasn't been found guilty of anything," Cindric said. "Sometimes people get ahead of themselves. You have to be careful that away."
The IRL season begins April 5 at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and Castroneves had sought to move his date to November, after the season. The Penske organization filed an affidavit to U.S. District court in November stating the team "could likely not keep Castroneves should there be a March, 2009 trial." "Roger didn't say that anything was definite," Cindric said. "He just said that it would be much more difficult at that point in time, which obviously it is." Because of the IRL's offseason testing ban, Penske wouldn't need Castroneves until spring training at Homestead in late March.
Castroneves, 33, was indicted in October on six counts of tax evasion, and one count of conspiracy to defraud the government. He allegedly failed to report about $5.5-million of income for 1999 through 2004.