Emulating Ali, Edwards seeking NASCAR title

Published 9:04 pm Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Nobody has ever accused Carl Edwards of lacking confidence.

But the fifth-year NASCAR Sprint Cup driver was beginning to sound a little Muhammad Ali-esque last Sunday after the latest of his 12 career victories.

“My psyche and mentality is pretty much fixed on I’m the greatest race car driver to ever live,” Edwards said, laughing. “You know what I’m saying?”

Edwards noted that it was longtime NASCAR star David Pearson who told him, “If you don’t believe that, you don’t belong in a race car.”

There’s little question that the Roush Fenway Racing driver belongs right where he is — and that’s challenging Cup points leader Kyle Busch for the favorite’s slot as they close in on the 10-race Chase for the championship.

The win by Edwards at Michigan International Speedway, his fifth of the season and second in the last three races, moved him just a bit closer to Busch, who has eight wins and was looking for a time like he might make this season into his own little success story.

There’s no question that Edwards has come a long way since Jack Roush, considered one of the best talent scouts in the business, gave him the opportunity to show that he could do the job, giving Edwards a full-time truck ride in 2003. Then 23, Edwards took full advantage, winning three races and finishing eighth in the points.

“I feel a little lonely in the decisions I have to make on many subjects at many different times,” noted Roush, who is now co-owner of the NASCAR team he started in 1988 with Mark Martin. “But Carl demonstrated to me — and as David Ragan does, and as Matt Kenseth did before him, and Greg Biffle did — that he’s going to be a good in this business as anybody I’ve ever known.

“And he’s going to stay there for a long time. So, I was right in recognizing he had potential — and very quickly after he won his first race … I told him, ‘I’ll stay in the business as long as you drive these cars.’ I hope that I’ve got job security for a long time now on account of that.”

Edwards has won so much now — including six races in trucks and 16 in the Nationwide Series — that he’s even experimenting with his trademark victory back flip off the car.

When he won the Nationwide race on Saturday, the Missourian did the back flip while still wearing both his HANS Device and helmet.

“I wanted to see how it would work,” Edwards said.

He stuck the landing.

On Sunday, he did his acrobatics bareheaded and stumbled a bit. But nobody seemed to care — least of all Edwards, who is just having fun.

“We’re getting to the point I feel personally that we can win at any racetrack we go to,” he said “Our pit crew has stepped up their game. That was our weakness for a long time, and the guys have just repeatedly, week after week, worked harder and become better.”

In both of his Michigan wins over the weekend, it was his crew that gave him the edge, getting him out ahead of Tony Stewart on Saturday and in front of Busch on Sunday on the final pits stops of each race.

And Edwards isn’t the only Roush Fenway driver feeling good these days.

Heading for Bristol this week, former champion Kenseth and Biffle are both in the top 12 with only three races to go until the start of the postseason. And Ragan, in only his second season in Cup, is 14th, but just 26 points behind 12th-place Denny Hamlin.

Shades of 2005, when all five Roush drivers made it into what was then a 10-man Chase field, with Biffle winning a tiebreaker with Edwards for the runner-up spot to champion Stewart.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that we’ll be able to put four cars in the Chase,” Roush said. “That won’t be the same as when we put five in, but Carl, based on the way that the structure of the Chase is, will be in better shape than any of the other guys can be.”

He was referring to the 10-point bonus the Chase drivers get for each win during the regular season. Despite losing one of those bonuses earlier this year after being penalized by NASCAR, Edwards would start the Chase just 40 points behind Busch if the playoffs began this week.

“Carl certainly is a strong favorite within my group of prospects of being able to close the deal,” Roush added.

Edwards likes the sound of that, although he isn’t expecting it to be easy.

“Somebody said, ‘It’s coming down to you and Kyle.’ I said, ‘Man, I hope it’s just me and Kyle.’ It would be nice to just have to beat one other guy,” Edwards said. “(But) I have a feeling that this Chase is going to be spectacularly competitive.”