Context can be a decisive factor in how we, or the actual competitors, view the results of a singular sporting event. The case of Carl Edwards' 2011 Chase season serves as a stark reminder of that notion.
During the third race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Dover, Edwards piloted what was by far the fastest car on the track. He entered a pit stop in the top five well into the race and was charged with a speeding penalty with 150 of 400 laps remaining.
That unforced error dropped him back 20 places and as far back as 27th. Because of his skill and the car his team had engineered, he was able to fight his way back to a third-place finish.
After the conclusion of the race, he thoroughly apologized to his team and owner.
The very next week at Kansas, Edwards fought a bad car all day long, despite qualifying second. From the outset of that race he looked weak. He almost caused a caution on lap one, nearly swerving into his Roush Fenway Racing teammate and pole sitter, Greg Biffle.
Somehow he battled back and gained a fifth-place finish. He reacted quite differently than his performance at Dover: he thought that his team should celebrate as if it won and drink champagne.
At day's end, he was in first place in the standings for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
With six races to go, he now must defend his meager one-point lead until the end of November to gain his first championship.
Here is how he can do it: the theme words are "avoid" and "repeat."
Carl Edwards' costly penalty at Dover clearly shows that he must avoid this kind of mental error in the next six races. It could eventually end up costing him the championship if it comes within one or two points.
He was truly blessed to have the car that he did. Without it, and his "disappointing" third place finish, his current rank would be in the middle of the pack of the Chase standings.
For anyone unaware, that is not the No. 66 smoking and floating. That is Carl Edwards flipping in turn four at Talladega a few seasons ago in his familiar No. 99.
To be fair, this was an insane crash, but Talladega is famous for supplying huge, multi-car crashes that can crush the dreams of more than a couple of Chase contenders in seconds.
Talladega looms for all drivers as the sixth race of the Chase. They all have to avoid the "Big One." Whether or not he leads the standings going into this race, "Cousin" Carl has to avoid this catastrophe in order to continue his fight for a Sprint Cup championship.
The perils of the "Big One" will not get easier for Edwards after the Talladega race. The seventh race of the Chase will take him to the short track of Martinsville, VA, a course where he is historically poor.
Theoretically, Chase drivers have room for one forgetful day during the Chase season. Carl Edwards could truly help his championship run by avoiding that day in Martinsville.
He has one top-five and four top-10 finishes in 14 attempts. In his last five races there, he has finished 18th or worse three times.
So long as he can make a top-15 finish, his title hopes should remain intact. He rose to first place through four Chase races by averaging a fifth-place finish without once visiting victory lane.
The real necessity for him here is to transcend his history and avoid repeating it at Martinsville.
To be fair, it is tough to say that Carl Edwards' only true miscue of the season was completely his fault. I watched the video from the February 2011 Phoenix race several times and it really looked like Kyle Busch got loose and hit him hard, inadvertently.
Either way, the first 70 laps of this race were VERY rough. A 13-car incident after Brian Vickers turned sideways induced a red flag; this after the Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Edwards had already retired to the garage from substantial collision damage.
It is easier said than done to avoid this kind of carnage. Sometimes the fate of one driver is truly in the hands of another, no matter how good his car is or how well he is driving.
Enough with what he needs to avoid for a bit...
Here is what he needs to repeat:
Carl Edwards finished the 2010 season in as solid a manner possible. He won the final two Chase races.
In contrast to this year's crash at Phoenix, he won there in the late fall of 2010 and finished out the season with a victory at Homestead Miami. Jimmie Johnson won the championship, but Carl Edwards built a foundation for his success in 2011 with those two closing wins.
This is a highly difficult task to duplicate. However, if Edwards could miraculously pull off consecutive season finale wins, he will be the next Sprint Cup Champion.
This is simple logic: Edwards has maintained an average finishing result of fifth place through four Chase races. Indeed, his average was the same through three Chase races and stayed the same upon his charge to fifth place at Kansas.
It has landed him in first place, outright, in the Chase standings through four races.
Winning, therefore, is not a complete necessity. It helps, but if he can continue his current Chase average, there is no doubt that he will be, at the very least, contending at the final race in Miami.
This is almost a cliche. In fact, it is directly tied to the repetition of his finishing. Trying to "out-point" other drivers during the course of the next five races could land Edwards in harms way.
It could cause him to be overly aggressive and make a costly mistake, especially late in a race when his adrenaline is already pumping.
The onus is on his spotter and crew chief not to feed him this kind of information, even if he asks for it.
Understandably, this may occur in the last race when the trophy is truly on the line. Edwards and crew have to avoid this temptation for the next five races and focus only on quality finishing.
They get a "lucky dog" pass if they start this during the last race at Homestead Miami. Would not you do the same?