Last year at this time, Carl Edwards was a media darling, gracing the cover of numerous NASCAR preview magazines, and was chosen by The Sporting News to win the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup.
But he didn’t meet expectations. Edwards, who entered the Nextel Cup series in August of 2004, struggled to a 12th-place finish after finishing third in 2005.
“If I had last year to do over, I think I would have made the Chase,” said Edwards, a Columbia native. “It’s the bad races that really hurt us.”
Edwards wasn’t alone. Tony Stewart, who won the 2005 Nextel Cup Championship, was 11th, and Greg Biffle, Edwards’ teammate who placed second in 2005 only because he had more wins than Edwards, finished 13th.
“I think this year will be pretty good. If you look at last year, the guys who were one, two, three a year before were 11, 12, 13,” said Edwards by cell phone from Daytona Beach, Fla., where he’s been preparing for today’s Daytona 500, in which he will start 14th.
“It just shows how competitive this series is.”
Fast forward a year, and Edwards is still a favorite of fans and the media — not to mention a romance novel heartthrob — thanks to his constant grin and congenial attitude. Although he’s again picked to make the Chase, the expectations have been tempered a little bit, and many magazines have him pegged for between fifth and 10th.
Fueling the hopes of returning to the Chase is the reunion of Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne. Osborne and Edwards, who were together in 2005, were separated in April by car owner Jack Roush in an attempt to improve the performance of Edwards and teammate Jamie McMurray. The move didn’t go so well, with neither team winning a race and McMurray finishing a disappointing 25th. Roush returned Osborne to Edwards’ team with two races remaining last season.
“Bob’s a great guy; we’ve had a lot of success with him,” Edwards said.
Gone from Roush Racing in 2007 is former teammate Mark Martin, who was the elder statesman of the team. Martin, who wanted to scale back his involvement in Nextel Cup after driving full-time since 1988, will run a part-time schedule this season for Ginn Racing.
“Not having Mark there is a loss. Mark is an amazing guy and gives a lot of input to the team,” Edwards said.
Some thought that running a full schedule in the Busch Series, coupled with his Cup schedule for the second consecutive year, was his undoing in 2006.
Not so, said Edwards, who is again pulling double duty, meaning that he will run upwards of 71 races in 2007.
“I enjoy it. I wouldn’t trade last year’s race at Gateway. It was amazing. It was one of the best races, and it ranks right up there with my Nextel Cup wins,” Edwards said, “It’s probably the most excited I’ve ever been in a race car.”
Edwards figures to have a great shot at a Busch Series championship in 2007 after finishing second last season. Seven drivers who are Nextel Cup regulars and finished in the top 10 in the Busch Series last year will not be racing full-time in the series this year, including Kevin Harvick, who ran away with the title in 2006, finishing more than 800 points ahead of Edwards.
But, as last year proved, Edwards, who has won nine times in the past two Busch seasons, is aware that anything can happen.
“I feel pretty good about it, but you never know about racing,” Edwards said.
Between the two series, that gives fans 71 televised races to catch a glimpse of Edwards. If that’s not enough, they can also pick up a copy of “Speed Dating,” the NASCAR-themed Harlequin romance novel that Edwards appears in. A Harlequin press release touts Edwards’ role as a wise veteran “who teaches aspiring drivers the rules of the road.”
Edwards admitted that he was a little unsure of what to expect when Harlequin approached Roush Racing about his involvement with a possible NASCAR series of books, but he’s happy with the way the books turned out.
“It’s been a lot of fun now to realize how many women enjoy reading these and the idea of getting racing to them,” Edwards said with a laugh.
Even with his busy schedule, Edwards makes time to come back to Columbia during the week.
“I come back at least every other week. I travel to 40 to 50 cities a year, and Columbia is one of my favorite places to go,” Edwards said.