When Harlequin, a publishing company that specializes in romance novels, decided to create a series of books with a NASCAR theme, the company needed to find the perfect driver to sell it. After all, according to a 2005 ESPN poll, 42 percent of NASCAR fans are female, and that number could increase if Harlequin found a driver with the right combination of personality, good looks and driving ability.
Who would they pick?
Tony Stewart? The man that fellow NASCAR driver Mark Martin called “the best driver of our era” would be the obvious choice based on driving skills. He’s the only driver with a signature line of body wash, but Stewart is a little too portly and unshaven to be considered eye candy.
Kasey Kahne? The 25-year-old has a firm grasp on the teeny-bopper market. But at 5 feet 8 inches tall and 150 pounds, Kahne looks like a teenager, hence his appeal to the Ashlee Simpson crowd. He’s just not hero material.
Jeff Gordon? He’s practically married. So much for fantasy.
Jimmie Johnson? He’s got a unibrow.
Among the most popular drivers, that leaves Carl Edwards.
In him, Harlequin has found what the publisher believes to be the right combination of personality, good looks and driving ability. He’ll even have a cameo in a future book.
On the publisher’s Web site, Edwards said that he hopes to be cast “as a good guy.” Edwards’ actions on the track in 2006 may not fit that image perfectly, but he still has a fiercely loyal following and is generally well-liked by sports writers.
“I truthfully can say I’ve never had a bad experience with Carl either on a teleconference or in person,” said John Sturbin, who covers motorsports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I’ve been covering NASCAR full time for 10 years, and there aren’t many drivers I can say that about.”
And yet Edwards’ temper was tested this year.
His frustration first boiled over publicly on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Michigan. He was leading as the field exited turn two on the final lap. All he had to do was hold off Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the win was his.
But Edwards’ car got loose. It was a slight bobble, barely visible, but enough to force him off the gas. Earnhardt got close — too close — and Earnhardt’s bumper met Edwards’. The contact wasn’t heavy — it didn’t damage either car — but it lifted Edwards’ rear tires off the ground and sent Edwards’ car careening out of control to the left, where hard contact with the inside retaining wall was inevitable.
The race ended under a yellow caution flag, prohibiting any more passing. Thanks to that nudge, Earnhardt won.
Edwards was furious. Exiting pit road after his crew attempted to fix the damage to his Ford, Edwards slammed his car into the driver’s side of Earnhardt’s car. The unsuspecting winner had his hand out the window. Words were exchanged, and then Edwards stormed Victory Lane, a no-no in NASCAR circles. He received probation and a $20,000 fine, but the consequences could have been much worse if he’d injured Earnhardt, the sport’s most popular driver.
Yes, it was just a Busch Series race — the NASCAR version of AAA baseball, where the sport’s big stars get to play on a regular basis — a series in which Edwards stands second in points and has won four times this season. But what really matters is the Nextel Cup series, and there, his season has been far from memorable.
Who’s the real Carl Edwards? The one that broke out in 2005? Or is he the guy who rammed his car into Earnhardt’s and called Tony Stewart a moron?
Maybe the answer is: both.
“I don’t think he has changed at all,” Ryan Smithson, writer for NASCAR.com, said, “because he won those four races last year and was running both (Busch and Cup) series this year, that added significant time to his schedule.”
Last year, in just his first full season on the Nextel Cup circuit, Edwards came onto the scene with a bang, becoming the first driver to win his first Nextel Cup race — on the last lap no less — the day after winning his first Busch race. Edwards went on to win three more races that season, and finished third in the points standings, losing out on second place in a tiebreaker. Toss in his celebratory victory back flip, “aw shucks” attitude and weighlifter’s physique, and a star was born.
This year has been a different, more contentious story.
Edwards is just 12th in points, eliminated from championship contention. Sure, 12th in the top auto racing series in the country is a great accomplishment. But to a driver with such high expectations, 12th might as well be 35th.
Thanks to a crash, Edwards finished last in the season-opening Daytona 500, setting the tone for his entire season.
Then in an effort to energize the season, Edwards’ car owner, Jack Roush, made some changes.
“Part of the problem with that team was that Jack Roush took away Carl’s longtime crew chief, Bob Osborne, and put him with Jamie McMurray after he struggled early this season,” Sturbin said. “Carl had to get used to working with new crew chief Wally Brown, and that’s not always easy,”
In July at Pocono, Edwards was in hurry-up mode. He was 235 points behind 10th place, the cutoff point for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, NASCAR’s version of a postseason. He’d won at Pocono in 2005, and if he could repeat that success, a Chase spot was still within reach.
Running in the top 10 in the early stages of the race, Edwards was minding his own business while just in front of him, Stewart and Clint Bowyer were battling for position. Stewart took offense at Bowyer’s attempted block and with a quick turn of his steering wheel sent Bowyer spinning. Edwards dashed to the low side to try to dodge Bowyer but couldn’t avoid the crash.
Edwards, who later turned Stewart around as they entered pit road, was penalized a lap.
Thus ended his Chase chances, and the sophomore jinx was in full effect.
But even Mark Martin, a driver known for his preternatural calm and gentlemanly conduct, would have been angry, Smithson said.
“I’m not sure (Edwards’ responses) were out of character. Unlike Stewart, we don’t have 10 years of incidents to draw from,” Smithson said.
Despite Edwards’ struggles and his temper flare-ups, his marketability and popularity still seem to be very high, though he wasn’t on the Top 10 list of most popular drivers when the results were released just before the races at Kansas Speedway the last weekend in September. Fans do the voting.
But the fans also camped out overnight just to catch a glimpse of Edwards when he appeared at a Kansas City Office Depot store that weekend. In August, when Earnhardt celebrated winning in Michigan, his victory lane celebration was booed. Earnhardt never gets booed.
There’s something about Carl.