OK, so maybe the celebration didn't go exactly as Carl Edwards had planned. After taking the checkered flag (and the $1 million prize that went with it) at the Sprint Cup All-Star Race in Charlotte on Saturday, Edwards attempted to slide his car through the infield grass but managed to mangle the front of his Ford in the process. Turf went everywhere and sparks flew out of the car before Edwards brought it to a stop and climbed out. Fortunately, he pulled off the ensuing trademark back flip with characteristic ease.
Though the win didn't count in the standings, it will certainly count for Edwards, who is a free agent at season's end and is first in the standings going into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Owner Jack Roush seems to want to keep Edwards right where he is. "Carl is a rock star," Roush said at a news conference after the All-Star race. "He was the cornerstone of our organization today. He's a draw for sponsors and a rallying point for his team."
Behind his team, led by crew chief Bob Osborne, Edwards has gotten off to a fast start in 2011. He finished second at the Daytona 500, won two weeks later at Las Vegas and has placed in the top-10 seven additional times in his other nine starts, including two runner-up finishes, at Bristol and Darlington. He's been atop the standings since his third place at Texas on April 9.
Edwards has finished no better than third at Charlotte (in '05 and '06), but he has seven top-10s at the track, and the momentum from the All-Star win won't hurt. Last year Kurt Busch took the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600, and Edwards seems to have the speed to do both as well. "I feel so bad about tearing up the car," he said after the All-Star win, "but Bob says he has a faster one for next week." If so, look for Edwards to get his second points win of the year this weekend.
Here are four other drivers to watch on Sunday:
Even though the five-time champion has averaged only a 12th place finish over his last five starts at Charlotte, you can't count Johnson out. He's taken six checkered flags there over the years, as many as he's taken at any other track over his Cup career, though only one of those wins has come since the track was repaved in 2006. "[The repave] changed things a lot," Johnson said. "I think around that point the new generation tire was coming out, then we certainly ended up with a new car, and that really kind of eliminates the advantage that we had in the past."
Regardless, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus know what it takes to win the longest race of the Sprint Cup season. "The key is just really staying on the road all night long," Johnson said. "You just can't get caught up in things that happen too early [in the race]."
Johnson has seven top-10s this season, including a win at Talladega in April. Only 24 points behind Edwards in the standings, he could come out ahead at the end of the weekend if Edwards has a bad day.
Busch finished a close second to Edwards at the All-Star Race, and if he can channel the speed he found on Tuesday near Troutman, N.C., where he was ticketed for going 128 mph in a 45 mph zone, he very well could cross the finish line first Sunday. "I was test driving a new sports car and I got carried away," he said in a statement in which he went on to apologize for his "lack of judgment."
His judgment has been better on the job, where he's racked up wins at Bristol and Richmond and top-5s at four additional tracks. But he finished 38th at his home track in Vegas (his car caught fire less than halfway through the race) and 35th at Talladega (he was in a wreck with less than 50 laps to go). He has more top-10s (eight) than any other driver over the last 10 races at Charlotte, though he's never won. If the younger Busch can, as Johnson put it, "stay on the road all night long," he could have a shot at his first win in Charlotte.
The sport's most popular driver is currently fourth in the standings, his highest ranking through 11 races since 2008. Dale Jr. and new crew chief Steve Letarte have demonstrated chemistry over the radio and the type of productive communication that could get Earnhardt back in the Chase for the first time since '08 and earn him his first win since June of that year.
Because of the 10-year exemption Earnhardt received after winning the All-Star Race in 2000, this was the first time in more than a decade he had to qualify. He was unable to race his way in during the 40-lap Showdown, but he qualified after winning the fan vote and was clearly grateful for the chance to get more time on a track at which he's never won a points race. "[It was] very productive for us to be in there and be running and trying stuff," Earnhardt said. "We changed a lot of things every opportunity we had ...[and] got a great feeling for the car and what this setup was doing and what we can probably do to make it better."
His year didn't start with a bang, but Kahne has a better average finish (9.6) at Charlotte over the last five years than any other driver with at least five starts at the track. In his first and only season with Red Bull Racing before he replaces Mark Martin at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has five top-10s but has averaged an 18th place finish over the season's first 11 races. He came in third at Richmond on April 3 and fourth at Darlington the week after, but then at Dover his car, which had been loose all day, quit on lap 331.
"We keep getting better each weekend, but I feel like we should have a win right now, and we don't," Kahne said before the All-Star Race. "Other than that, I think we're probably fairly close to where we should be. Our points don't show, but I would say we're kind of a top 5-ish car right now each week. We've been right there."