HAMPTON, Ga. — Lap after lap, Carl Edwards flirted with the outside walls on his way to another victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
While just about everyone else in the 43-car field for Sunday’s NASCAR Nextel Cup race tried to run well below those unforgiving walls, Edwards purposely hugged the concrete at speeds approaching 200 mph.
“I like running at the top of the racetrack,” Edwards, a Columbia native, said after completing a season sweep on the 1.5-mile, D-shaped oval. “It’s a blast.
“I used to race at this track in Holt Summitt, Missouri, and the fast line used to be with the right-side tires up on the guardrail. We won two track championships there just driving it on the guardrail.”
But, now, instead of racing at an obscure dirt track, Edwards is competing in NASCAR’s top stock car series and vying for a championship in his first full season of competition.
“I was worried that I would slip up and make a mistake, but the car was good enough that I didn’t have to drive hard enough to be in danger. It was just fun,” Edwards said.
The victory in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 helped Edwards make up some ground in the Chase for the championship, moving him from fifth into a tie for fourth with Ryan Newman. Both now trail leader Tony Stewart by 107 points, with three races remaining in the 10-event season-ending playoff.
“Absolutely, we’re making a run,” Edwards said when asked if he believes he can win the title. “That’s why we were here today. We had some bad runs at New Hampshire and Martinsville, tracks I’m just not as good at. But, if we can just do well at the track that we are good at, we’ll do it.
“Anything can happen in racing, just anything. So we’re not going to quit until the last race.”
Edwards, who barely held off veteran Jimmie Johnson for his first Cup victory on the Georgia track in March, had a dominating car through the second half of Sunday’s 325-lap race.
Edwards lost a lead of more than 6 seconds when the last of nine caution flags waved for debris on lap 283. But he was able to regain control and pulled away to earn his third victory of the season, beating four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon to the finish line by 2.713-seconds, half the front straightaway on the 1.5-mile oval.
Stewart, the hottest driver in the series since June, finished ninth and increased his lead atop the standings from 15 to 43 points over Johnson, who finished 16th and was the last driver on the lead lap.
Edwards, who did his patented backflip off the window ledge of his No. 99 Ford after the race, led eight times for 115 laps, including the final 36. He was one of four Chase contenders finishing ahead of Stewart, tightening the overall points battle.
Edwards, 26, who is not eligible for rookie of the year because he ran 13 races at the end of the 2004 season, also won in June at Pocono and has refused to buckle under the pressure of the Chase.
“I’m having so much fun, it’s hard to explain it,” Edwards said with a grin. “They just keep giving me great cars with great engines.”
Edwards’ Roush Racing teammates Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle finished third, fifth and seventh. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who dominated the early part of the race and led a race-high 142 laps, was fourth; Jamie McMurray was sixth, and Jeff Burton eighth. Earnhardt, McMurray and Burton all failed to qualify for the Chase.
Newman, who began the day third in the points, finished a lap down in 23rd and lost considerable ground.
Heading to Texas for next Sunday’s race, Stewart and Johnson still have a cushion over the rest of the Chase field. Biffle is 75 points behind Stewart in third. Martin is sixth, 143 behind, with Kenseth 155 back.
“We did what we had to do today,” Stewart said. “We didn’t have the best call, but we ran pretty well and we gained some points. Now, we just have to keep it going for three more races.
Stewart was asked if three more races like Sunday’s would give him his second Cup title.
“I’d like to just win the next three races and know for sure I’d won the championship that way,” he said. “One race could take us to fifth in the points, so it’s too early to get excited.”
Despite moving up one spot in the standings and gaining eight points on Stewart, Biffle wasn’t very happy.
“We were terrible all day,” he said. “We just never got hold of the racetrack. I really don’t know why, but I’m scratching my head.”
Meanwhile, three other contenders in the 10-man, 10-race Chase saw their hopes of a title virtually end. Reigning Cup champion Kurt Busch, the fifth Roush driver, crashed after cutting a tire and wound up 36th; Rusty Wallace got caught up in a three-car crash early in the race and finished 37th, and Jeremy Mayfield had a mechanical problem that relegated him to 38th. That left all of them a daunting 257 or more points behind Stewart.