Will the Real Carl Edwards Please Stand Up Before It's Too Late for the Chase?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2012

Carl Edwards hasn't had a whole lot to smile about for much of this season.
Carl Edwards hasn't had a whole lot to smile about for much of this season.Michael Hickey-US PRESSWIRE

Can someone tell us where is Carl Edwards and who is this imposter behind the wheel of the No. 99 Ford?

He's not driving like the Cousin Carl we know, and he's not winning, either.

Heck, he's struggling to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup—and has just two races left to assure his place in the 12-driver field.

Is this really the same Carl Edwards that tied for the Sprint Cup championship last season, only to lose it on a tie-breaker to Tony Stewart (by virtue of total wins)?

Team owner Jack Roush even went so far as to replace Edwards' beloved and loyal crew chief, Bob Osborne (who served two different stints as Edwards' crew chief), with Chad Norris a little over a month ago.

Osborne reportedly stepped down from the pit box due to health issues.

And now the pressure is on Edwards more than it has been all season. Heading into Sunday night's Sprint Cup race at Atlanta, Edwards is 34 points out of 10th place—which isn't that huge of a sum, except for the fact that there are only two races remaining before the 12-driver Chase field is set.

If Edwards is unable to crack the top-10 or finish as one of the two wild card entries, it would mark the first time in his career that he failed to qualify for the Chase—a fact that is even more disconcerting given how well he performed in last year's Chase, in a neck-and-neck battle that went all the way down to the wire before Stewart was awarded his third Cup championship.

Meanwhile, Edwards continues to hunt for the first Cup title of his career.

Yet, he and his team have not given up hope. If there was ever a place for Edwards and Co. to turn things around and make one last valiant bid to make the Chase, Sunday night's race at Atlanta is it.

If you doubt that statement, look at Edwards' record at one of the fastest 1.5-mile tracks on the circuit: in 14 races, he has three wins, eight top-5 and 10 top-10 finishes.

Also, according to NASCAR's statistical department, Edwards has turned in 339 of Atlanta Motor Speedway's fastest laps of his 14 career starts there, which just happens to be a series high. He also has led a total of 345 laps there.

To put it mildly, the man loves to drive fast, and AMS is a place he particularly excels at: his driver rating there is fourth best among active drivers, according to NASCAR statisticians.

Further, in four of his last six starts at AMS, Edwards has recorded outstanding finishes of first, third, second and fifth (last year's race). Unfortunately, also included in that string were two of his worst performances there, 37th and 39th.

Still, the No. 99 team comes into Sunday night's race expecting to win and won't settle for anything less.

"We are headed to Atlanta this weekend knowing what we need to do as a team," Norris said in this week's team race preview press release. "We are focused and determined, and we refuse to give up on making the Chase.

"We have two races left and Atlanta has always been a great track for Carl. A win there would put us right in the thick of the battle for the two wild card slots. In the next two weeks, we've got 725 laps to give it all we have."

While that sounds great in theory, it makes you wonder if Edwards and Co. really have been giving it all they have in the first 24 races of the regular season. To say he's struggled is an understatement. Rather, he's driving like someone other than the Edwards so many fans have grown to love and admire as a race car driver.

In a sense, this season has been very similar to Edwards' campaign in 2009. Coming off a 2008 campaign that saw him win a series-high nine races and finish runner-up to Jimmie Johnson for the championship, Edwards failed to win a race and recorded just seven top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes in 2009. While he made the Chase again, it's not surprising that with that kind of record, he finished the season in 11th place.

Edwards has yet to earn a win in 2012, has just two top-5 and 11 top-10 finishes, plus one pole.

Let's compare that record to last season: one win, 19 top-5 and 26 top-10 finishes, plus three poles.

Still, there are 12 races left, including the 10-race Chase, and Edwards is known as a streak driver. Once he gets hot, he typically stays hot for the next few races. That's what the team is banking upon heading into Sunday's race. If he can leave Atlanta with a win—or at least a top-5—he still has a chance to secure his spot in the Chase field with another strong showing at Richmond on Sept. 8.

Of course, if Edwards wins both races, his chances to make the Chase become all the more better, if not making him a lock.

There is one heartening and yet also worrisome thing as Edwards prepares for Atlanta. If the Chase were to begin today, he would make it as the wild card driver with the most points earned, and would start the Chase likely in 12th place.

But even though Edwards is currently 12th in the standings, he also has to worry about guys like Kyle Busch, who is only five points behind—and also has a win, as opposed to zero for Edwards. Four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon is 21 points behind Edwards and has a full head of steam after finishing third at Bristol last Saturday. Gordon, who is the defending race winner at Atlanta, also has a win this season, which could ultimately be the final deciding factor on who gets the final Chase berth.

Ryan Newman (24 points behind Edwards, one win) and Marcos Ambrose (33 points back, also one win) are also still mathematically in Chase contention heading to Atlanta.

Edwards may be short on points right now, but he's not short on confidence coming into Atlanta.

"We could not be going to a better race track for our team right now, all the guys are pumped," Edwards said in his team's weekly press release. "We've had great success there.

"Atlanta is one of the more challenging tracks to drive. It's fun, it's fast, there are bumps and different grooves. The track has character and that's what makes it so much fun to race. We're going there expecting a victory. "