The directoryells "Action!" and the confident young star makes his entrance.Dressed in a black suit and dark gray tie, Carl Edwards strides into a scenefor an episode of the Fox action hit 24, jaw clenched, leading a team ofbriefcase-carrying Homeland Security officers who commandeer a CounterTerrorist Unit office. All eyes on the set at the Chatsworth, Calif., studioare on Edwards, the NASCAR driver turned actor for a day. Even KieferSutherland, the star of the series, who is sitting offstage fiddling with hiscellphone and a pack of smokes, leans forward in his chair and watches withinterest.
Edwards has but acameo role, yet as soon as the shot is complete it becomes clear, in part, whyhe is poised to become NASCAR's next big thing: Not only was he as commanding apresence in front of the camera as he is on the track, but he also charmed thecast and crew with his wholesome-as-milk Midwesterner personality and toothysmile.
"You're anatural," an impressed Sutherland tells Edwards. "I've got to come seeyou race.... You are the man!"
"You're oneof the best extras we've had," says director Jon Cassar, as he pats Edwardson the back. "Actually, Carl, you're scary good."
Scary good.That's the description of Edwards that was most often heard around the NextelCup garage during last year's Chase for the Nextel Cup. In his first fullseason Edwards won four Cup races and finished third in the points standings.Though he struggled on the two road courses, Edwards ran as well as any otherdriver on the intermediate tracks, which in 2006 will host 17 of the 36 NextelCup races (box, page 68), including six of the 10 Chase events. A relentlesscharger, Edwards has the ability--rare even at the Cup level--to keep his carconsistently fast even at the very edge of adhesion. Expect a six-car sprint tothe title among Edwards, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, reigning champ Tony Stewart,Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, with the 26-year-old Edwards, in thered-and-white number 99 Ford, being SI's pick to hoist the Cup in Homestead,Fla., on Nov. 19 (box, page 70). Over the final month of last season no driverwas faster than Edwards, a Columbia, Mo., native who won two of the last fourraces and had a series-high average finish of 3.0 over that span.
"TonyStewart, in my opinion, is the greatest racer of our time, but Carl is betterat this stage in his career than Tony was," says Mark Martin, 21-year Cupdriver and a Roush Racing teammate of Edwards's. "Every once in a while aguy comes along who just catches on and is fast right away. Carl is one ofthose guys."
"You can seeCarl's intensity, his car control," says Johnson, who lost out to Edwardson a thrilling final-lap dash at Atlanta Motor Speedway last March as Edwardsgrabbed his first Cup victory. "This guy is our next superstar."
While Edwards wasthe surprise of 2005--entering the season he had made only 13 stock car startson pavement--the biggest disappointment was Gordon, the four-time Cup titlistand the last driver to repeat as champion, in 1998. After Gordon failed toqualify for the Chase last fall, he and longtime crew chief Robbie Loomisparted ways, and 26-year-old Steve Letarte moved to the top of Gordon's pitbox. A former intern at Hendrick Motorsports whose first job at the company, in1995, was sweeping the parts-room floor, Letarte took the extraordinary step oftweaking the aerodynamics of the Chevy's design and essentially putting a newbody on Gordon's car for a test session in October--a move that gave Gordonimproved handling and three top three finishes in the last five races.
Gordon and 2005Nextel champ Stewart are the heavy favorites to win Sunday's season-openingDaytona 500; Gordon won last year's 500, and Stewart dominated the Pepsi 400 atDaytona last July, leading 151 of the 160 laps. On Jan. 13, Stewart sufferedbruised ribs when he flipped a sprint car in Tulsa, but three weeks later hewas smiling every time he eased out of his Chevy during a test session at LasVegas Motor Speedway. According to several team members, Stewart is invigoratedby the arrival of new teammates Denny Hamlin, 25, and J.J. Yeley, 29. Onereason is that Stewart and former teammate Bobby Labonte, who left Joe GibbsRacing in the off-season to drive for Petty Enterprises, raced radicallydifferent setups--Stewart likes an extremely loose car, while Labonte prefers atight one--and thus the two rarely shared information. The new teammates willdrive a similar setup to Stewart's.
"The youngguys keep us on our toes," says Ronny Crooks, the shock specialist on thenumber 20 team. "It's never easy to repeat in our sport, but we're aconfident team. Real confident, actually." The young guys Crooks wasspeaking of were Hamlin and Yeley, but he just as easily could have beenreferring to Edwards--the driver that Gordon, Stewart and the rest of theNextel field will have to watch out for.
Six years agoCarl Edwards was a racing vagabond, driving his modified racer under the lightsat small dirt tracks throughout the Midwest on Saturday nights. His fascinationwith fast cars came from his father, Carl Sr., a longtime weekend racer whoowns a Volkswagen garage in Columbia. At 15 the younger Edwards began racing afour-cylinder sprint car--his father made a fake ID that said Carl Jr. was 16and therefore eligible to compete--but he was underfunded and won onlyoccasionally. Whenever he did pull into Victory Lane, Carl Jr. would entertainthe 200 or 300 fans in the decaying stands by performing a backflip off theedge of the cockpit--a stunt he had perfected on a friend's trampoline afterhaving seen it done by a California racer.
Unsure of hisfuture in motor sports after graduating from Rock Bridge High in 1997, heenrolled at Missouri. "I almost joined a fraternity, but I wouldn't havebeen able to keep racing on the weekends," says Edwards, a general studiesmajor who is 34 credits shy of earning his degree. "Even though I was incollege, I was still focused on making it in racing."
Unlike mostweekend racers Edwards didn't own a truck to tow his car to the track. Instead,when he was still in high school he paid $1,200 for an off-white church bus,which he would hitch the car to and drive to the races. With five of hischildhood friends serving as his pit crew, Edwards raced every weekend possiblewhile in college, always hoping to make an impression on a deep-pocketed ownerin either the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series or the Busch Series. At tracks hehanded out nearly 3,000 business cards that read RACE CAR DRIVER FOR HIRE andran a classified ad--DRIVER LOOKING FOR A RIDE--in Speedsport magazine.
After the churchbus gave out in August 2000, Ken Schrader, a NASCAR driver who is a cousin ofCarl Sr.'s, gave Edwards a rusted, bright-orange school bus. Driving hisbeat-up Ford Festiva, Edwards and two friends made the 850-mile trip toCharlotte to pick it up. On their return to Columbia, as Edwards was drivingthe bus on I-77, three Roush Racing haulers blew past him--semis carrying thenumbers 99, 6 and 97 Fords. Wearing a sleeveless undershirt and sweatingprofusely in the bus, which had no air-conditioning and was topping out at 48mph, Edwards excitedly pointed to the haulers, telling his younger brother,Kenny, who was riding shotgun in a lawn chair, "Man, those are the guys Iwant to race for!"
"I wasliterally so close to Roush at that moment," recalls Edwards, "butfiguratively so far away."
While substituteteaching in Columbia to pay the bills, Edwards finally got his break in thesummer of 2002 when Mike Mittler, who owned and raced a truck in the CraftsmanTruck Series, gave Edwards some seat time. Edwards had been spending almost allof his spare hours at Mittler's race shop in Foristell, Mo., and every day hepelted Mittler with the same question: Can I race your truck this week? Inseven races in what was still only so-so equipment, he consistently ran in thetop 15 and had one top 10 finish. Impressed with Edwards's car control andability to find the fastest groove on the track, often hugging the outer edgeof the racing surface--his trademark to this day--Jack Roush offered Edwards achance to drive a truck for him full time in 2003. With three wins and 13 topfive finishes, Edwards copped rookie-of-the-year honors, then won theseason-opener the next year. That prompted Roush to promote him to his NextelCup team in August '04, even though Edwards had never driven a stock car onpavement.
Like other youngdrivers such as Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr., Edwardsbenefited from a trend that is quickly changing the face of NASCAR. "Thesedays sponsors want younger drivers to promote their products, and that's themain reason why so many of us young guys are getting opportunities," saysTruex, 25, who will drive the number 1 Chevy for Dale Earnhardt Inc. thisseason.
That's not howthe 47-year-old Mark Martin got his start. "When Rusty Wallace and I werecoming up, you had to prove yourself before you got a chance to make it,"he says. "Cup owners didn't want young guys. They wanted veterans withjudgment."
Edwards's lack ofexperience and his full-throttle aggressiveness--"Carl doesn't mind puttingthe car in places where it's not always supposed to be," says GregBiffle--has led to a few confrontations with other drivers. In his sixth Cuprace, at Dover, in September 2004, Edwards was struggling, far behind theleaders, when Stewart came roaring up behind him, expecting to lap the number99 Ford. But Edwards didn't get out of Stewart's way, violating NASCAR'sunwritten rule that slower cars must yield to faster ones. For a few lapsStewart couldn't get past Edwards, causing the veteran to become more agitatedby the second. When he finally sped by Edwards, Stewart gave him a one-fingersalute. After the race Edwards marched into Stewart's hauler, where Stewart waschanging out of his uniform.
According toseveral sources, here's how the meeting went: "I must have offended you,Tony, and I'm sorry if I was blocking you," Edwards said. "I'm justhonored to be racing with you guys. You guys are my heroes, and in the futureI'll get out of your way."
"Carl, you'rea great racer," replied Stewart, "but damn, you've got to let people gowhen they're faster than you."
That moment inStewart's trailer was a defining one: Confident in his position at racing'shighest level, Edwards laid on the charm and diffused a potential feud with aformer champion notorious for his temper. Since then Edwards and Stewart havebecome fast friends, as well as fierce rivals.
Five weeks later,Edwards finished third in Atlanta, and two races after that, seventh atDarlington. Seemingly learning something new every trip around the track,Edwards wound up with five top 10 finishes in his 13 starts. Suddenly, everyonein the Cup garage was asking the same question: Where in the world did this guycome from?
On the day thathe made his primetime acting debut in 24, Edwards was driving a tan 2005Lincoln Town Car on an L.A. freeway, weaving through heavy traffic en route tothe studio. Breaking into a mischievous grin, he bumped, hard, into the back ofthe car ahead of him, which was driven by his publicist, Sheri Herrmann. "Istill can't get over the fact that I even have a p.r. person," Edwards toldhis startled passenger, who was relieved to see Herrmann maintain control evenas she waved over her shoulder in consternation at Edwards. "I honestlythink I'm the luckiest person in NASCAR. If you could have seen where I wasjust a few years ago--how broke I was when I was living in my mom'shouse--you'd have never thought I'd ever be on my way to be on 24."
His expressionsoftened when he started talking about his girlfriend, Amanda Beard, thetraffic-stopping, gold-medal-winning Olympic swimmer he has dated for a year."She's perfect," Edwards said. "I can't believe how lucky Iam." Later he called Kenny, filled him in on the day's schedule and endedthe conversation by telling his brother that he loves him.
Away from thetrack Edwards is a dimple-cheeked boy next door, a landslide winner in anice-guy contest and a sponsor's dream--but don't be fooled. When the greenflag drops, a get-out-of-my-way intensity burns in his blue eyes. Obviouslyhe's not afraid to mix it up with rival drivers, and he still takes more thanhis share of chances in races, but the difference now is that Edwards embracesthe golden rule of racing: To finish first, you first must finish.
"I'mdefinitely learning to take less chances and go for the higher finishes,"he said. "When I first got an opportunity at this level, I thought I had toreally make an impression on people. So I went as fast and as hard as I could.This caused some problems, and I made some mistakes. But I've learned fromthat. This season I'm expecting good things to happen."
And nine monthsfrom Sunday, expect this: Edwards doing a backflip off the window ledge of hiscar in Homestead, celebrating his first Nextel Cup.
For more NASCAR coverage, and more from Lars Anderson,go to SI.com/racing.
Projected Top 20
SI predicts the order of finish in the pointsstandings after the final race in Homestead, Fla. (Driver, owner, car, 2005standing)
1 CARL EDWARDS Roush Racing, 99 Office Depot Ford,third
Eight top 10s in last year's Chase; the 26-year-old is getting better by thelap
2 GREG BIFFLE Roush Racing, 16 National Guard Ford,second
If not for a loose wheel at Texas on Nov. 6, he likely would have won the '05Cup
3 JEFF GORDON Hendrick Motorsports, 24 DuPont Chevy,11th
Like the New York Yankees, he's too talented to have back-to-back downyears
4 TONY STEWART Joe Gibbs Racing, 20 Home Depot Chevy,first
Has a strong shot to become only the eighth driver to win three or moretitles
5 JIMMIE JOHNSON Hendrick Motorsports, 48 Lowe'sChevy, fifth
Has won 18 races in four full Cup seasons, but must avoid pre-Chase slump
6 RYAN NEWMAN Roger Penske Racing, 12 Alltel Dodge,sixth
"Mr. Friday"--he won eight poles in '05--has to be more consistent onSunday
7 DALE EARNHARDT JR. Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), 8Budweiser Chevy, 19th
Last season was the first since 1978 that an Earnhardt didn't finish in the top12
8 DENNY HAMLIN Joe Gibbs Racing, 11 FedEx ExpressChevy, rookie in '06
In a tryout last year, he had two top 10s in a car that had rarely seen the top30
9 KURT BUSCH Roger Penske Racing, 2 Miller Lite Dodge,10th
2004 champ hopes to revive career after Roush cut him loose in November
10 MATT KENSETH Roush Racing, 17 DeWalt Tools Ford,seventh
New multiyear deal with Roush ends talk of a possible jump to Toyota in '07
11 ELLIOTT SADLER Robert Yates Racing, 38 M&M'sFord, 13th
Car faded over final 18 races; a new crew chief, Tommy Baldwin, is on board
12 JAMIE MCMURRAY Roush Racing, 26 Crown Royal Ford,12th
One of the most coveted young racers, he left Ganassi team for Roush
13 KYLE BUSCH Hendrick Motorsports, 5 Kellogg's Chevy,20th
Top rookie in 2005 won twice but is still a year away from contending fortitle
14 MARK MARTIN Roush Racing, 6 AAA Ford, fourth
Other than a Cup title, what he craves most is a win at Daytona (0 for 41)
15 BRIAN VICKERS Hendrick Motorsports, 25 GMAC Chevy,17th
Four top 10s in one five-race stretch last year; could be breakout star of2006
16 KASEY KAHNE Evernham Motorsports, 9 UAW Dodge,23rd
A make-or-break season for the 2004 Rookie of the Year
17 DALE JARRETT Robert Yates Racing, 88 UPS Ford,15th
At 49 the oldest full-time Cup driver may still have something to show thekids
18 JEREMY MAYFIELD Evernham Motorsports, 19 UAW Dodge,ninth
Made the Chase two years running, but Evernham team is struggling
19 KEVIN HARVICK Richard Childress Racing, 29 GMGoodwrench Chevy, 14th
Not happy with his car in recent years; don't expect that to change thisseason
20 MARTIN TRUEX JR. DEI, 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy,rookie in '06
Two-time Busch champ has good chance to win at least one Cup race this year