KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer returned to home track Kansas Speedway a year ago at very different points in their careers.
Edwards had claimed the top spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship a week earlier and was locked into a tense title race. Bowyer used the venue to announce his next career move after a nerve-racking summer scouring a limited free agent market.
Things couldn't be any more different a year later as they've returned for Sunday's race.
It's Bowyer, in his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing, who is now a title contender. Edwards, who lost the championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker, is stuck in neutral after a steep drop-off.
"Man this thing is so competitive," Edwards said. "I cannot express to you guys how quickly everyone leapfrogs in the garage."
There is no better example than Bowyer and Edwards of how fast the landscape can change in the Sprint Cup Series.
Edwards, who still lives two hours away in hometown Columbia, goes into Sunday's race ranked 15th in the standings. He's not in the 12-driver Chase field and is stuck in a 64-race winless streak dating back to Phoenix in Feb. 2011. It's the longest drought of his nine-year Sprint Cup career.
Bob Osborne, his longtime crew chief, stepped down midway through this season for health reasons, and Edwards has been adapting since to Chad Norris.
This wasn't what anyone had in mind after last year's finale, which ended in a tie between Edwards and Stewart. The championship went to Stewart based on his five Chase victories, and Edwards sat down with the Roush Fenway Racing management group to figure out where they could have found that one difference-making point.
"Well, that didn't work very well, did it?" he asked.
While teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth have won races and made the Chase, Edwards has struggled to match the consistency and repeat the dominance of last season. But he's seen improvement, and has four top-10 finishes in the 12 races he's been paired with Norris.
"Chad and these guys have done a spectacular job," Edwards said. "We qualified second at Indy, and we started picking up speed. I wouldn't want to be in Chad's position. We didn't make the Chase, but as it stands right now if we would have made it, we're still not running well enough and we're getting caught up with troubles that we don't need. It's not like we've gone on a tear and won three races. This is kind of how of where we deserve to be right now."
The contrast is Bowyer, from 90 minutes away in Emporia. He's having the best season of his career with a team he wasn't even sure he wanted to join.
Bowyer had six good years with Richard Childress Racing and wanted to stay there, but couldn't work out an extension last season. With so few open seats, fledgling Waltrip Racing persuaded Bowyer to take a chance on them because they had a plan in place toward becoming a legitimate player in NASCAR.
That leap of faith might be the best decision Bowyer's ever made.
His win last Saturday night at Charlotte was his career-best third of the season and edged him back into the title race. He goes into Sunday's race ranked fourth in the standings, 28 points behind leader Brad Keselowski.
Popular in the garage but somewhat overlooked by the mainstream NASCAR fan base, Bowyer and his electric energy are finally getting some attention.
But earning respect isn't important to Bowyer. He's instead savoring this time with MWR, which earned its first Chase berths in company history this year with Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., and has suddenly grown into a NASCAR's current "it" team.
It's a massive accomplishment for an organization that spent its first years struggling to make races, and now six years later finds itself in a championship battle.
"As far as respect, whatever else, I don't care," Bowyer said. "That doesn't drive me. Enjoying the moment and being in Victory Lane with this group of guys — that's what drives me. That's so much fun to be there. That's what everybody goes to the track for — to see those faces that have been trying so hard over the years to be in Victory Lane and enjoying that.
"It doesn't get any better than that."