As NASCAR’s Chase winds down and only three races remain until the 2014 champion is crowned, the headlines and the conversations are full of names like Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano.
Each of those drivers is a Chase race winner, and in the case of Gordon and Keselowski, they are former Sprint Cup champions as well. So, it makes sense that they are a big part of the news heading into the weekend.
However, one name is missing from the conversation. One name that for very different reasons sticks in my head.
Edwards. As in Carl Edwards.
Yes, I’m talking about the same driver who is a lame duck at Roush Fenway Racing. The same driver who won just two races this year and hasn’t seen Victory Lane since June.
At Bristol in March, Edwards survived a long and raucous night to hold off hard-charging teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (in his best performance this season) to win and punch his ticket to the Chase. Then, later in the year on the road course at Sonoma of all places, Edwards held off a tough veteran driver named Jeff Gordon to win his first career Sprint Cup road-course race.
Yes, that guy. His name keeps popping into my conversation.
He heads to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, a 1.5-mile track and a layout where historically the Roush Fenway cars have done well. This year, as Jeff Owens of Sporting News also points out, the Roush Fenway cars have struggled this season.
“I think Texas is one that I’m actually a little more nervous about than this track or Phoenix.” Edwards told the media during his availability at Martinsville last week. “I wish it weren’t true because it’s such a fun race track to do well at, so I’m not sure what to think about Texas yet. I think it’s gonna be tough.”
Still, there’s no denying that TMS is one of his better tracks. His resume reads three wins, six top-five and eight top-10 finishes and one pole start there.
Not too shabby, don’t you think? Edwards has a genuine shot at winning the championship this year, his first since 2011. He’s not about to give anything less than 100 percent every weekend.
But think of this too: This guy really has nothing to lose. He’s racing in his final three races for longtime team owner and good friend Jack Roush, with whom he has a close relationship and who has made Edwards’ leaving for Joe Gibbs Racing as smooth as possible.
“It’s been great and it’s surprised me at how much hasn’t changed since I announced that I was leaving,” said Edwards at Martinsville. “Robbie Reiser (RFR general manager), Steve Newmark (RFR President), Jack Roush…they’ll joke around a little bit about it, but there’s really nothing but hard work and dedication by all those guys to get this 99 team a championship.”
Also, it’s that relationship with Roush. It’s a special one that leaves Edwards feeling as though he owes this one to the 72-year-old owner.
“We’ve been doing this a long time together,” Edwards said in a media teleconference two weeks ago. “I’ve been at Roush Fenway for almost 12 years, so I feel like it’s family. Yeah, we’re going different ways at the end of the year, but we all want to win this thing. So far it’s gone great. My hope is that we win it and we’re able to shake hands and move forward as friends.”
Emotions figure big in racing. It’s an often overlooked asset that a driver and his team can bring to a winning equation—after talent. Edwards has the right emotions for this run for the championship. And there’s absolutely no question whatsoever that he himself is talented and is surrounded by some of the most talented people in the racing business.
Then there’s crew chief Jimmy Fennig. This guy has seen it all. He’s been a crew chief in the sport since the 1980s. And it’s his final season as a crew chief. He’s worked with some of the most talented drivers to ever drive in the sport, including Mark Martin, Bobby Allison and Kurt Busch, whose team he directed to the Sprint Cup Championship in 2004—the first in the then-new Chase format.
“My crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, this is his last year he’s gonna crew chief and I think he’s been doing this longer than I’ve been alive, so there are a lot of doors closing or chapters finishing and it would be really cool for a number of reasons to win this year,” Edwards told the media before Martinsville.”
But, you say, the odds are against him.
I’ll admit that Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon have won more races this season. While Edwards' 23 career wins don’t stack up against Gordon’s 92, they outshine both Keselowski (16) and Logano (8). When it comes down to who’s got the right combination of pure emotion and pure talent, Edwards is there with them. In fact, he may just have them beat.
“You’re gonna have to really step up your game to beat those guys to win the championship,” Edwards added at Martinsville.
So, while others are grabbing the headlines, Edwards moves quietly forward with a low-key approach to this weekend. He sits sixth in points.
“This format surprised me,” Edwards said during his teleconference. “I didn’t think that this was possible, the idea of a format like this caught me off guard. I guarantee you (NASCAR chairman) Brian France is kicked back with his feet up with a smile on his face because right now, this is working.”
A win and he’s one of the four in the finale. A good day coupled with a bad one by one of those headliners and he’s poised to do the same.
That's not a bad place to be for a guy no one is talking about.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis