CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With his trademark back flip, toothy grin and jovial personality, Carl Edwards rocketed his way to NASCAR superstar status.
Now his Nextel Cup rivals claim that Mr. Nice Guy routine was nothing more than an elaborate act designed to con the NASCAR community. In the fallout from his showdown with teammate Matt Kenseth, drivers lined up to assail Edwards’ character and expose him as a two-faced phony.
Figuring out what to believe isn’t so easy.
No matter how genuine Edwards may or may not be, there’s something a bit unseemly about people only speaking up when given the opportunity to kick a colleague when he’s down.
Make no mistake, people piled on.
First, Kenseth criticized Edwards’ alleged mood swings. Then his Roush Fenway Racing teammates weighed in. Finally, his rivals joined the fray.
“He seems to not be getting along with some of the other drivers that are over there,” said former Roush driver Kurt Busch, who referred to Edwards as “The Carl.”
“I’ve seen it all along with him. He’ll give you that flashy smile but at the same time he’s got something underneath his breath for you. Now it’s just starting to appear.”
Elliott Sadler claimed Edwards took offense to critical comments he made about him two years ago when Edwards bumped him out of the lead on the last lap of a Busch Series race at Richmond. Sadler said it led to a confrontation the next day — in the middle of the driver’s meeting — in which Edwards approached him in the same menacing manner he did to Kenseth a week ago.
“Racing with Carl, he seems to have a lot of problems with a lot of different people,” Sadler said. “Hitting Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. after the race in Michigan, attacking him in Victory Lane and then attacking Matt.
“I think he is one of the best race car drivers in our sport. Carl Edwards can do a lot of amazing things with a race car. I just think sometimes he can’t control his attitude. He’s really a nice guy. He really is. He just sometimes lets his attitude get the best of him.”
That’s essentially what Kenseth alleged after Edwards accosted him following last week’s race in Martinsville, Va. The incident might have stayed within the Roush camp had it not been caught on camera and quickly posted on YouTube.
In the short clip, Edwards interrupts Kenseth as he’s about to start a television interview and is seen pushing him down pit road in anger. Right before he turns to walk away, Edwards raises his fist as if to strike Kenseth, who noticeably flinches.
“There was no provoking, nothing going on,” said Kenseth, who refused to return Edwards’ apology call and only spoke to him when Edwards sought him out this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“I was just kind of standing there minding my own business when he came up. There must be something that’s maybe been festering with him and he’s ready to blow about, but I don’t really know exactly what that would be. We haven’t really had any big conflicts.”
Edwards alleged otherwise, and referred to a lack of team spirit at Roush that is currently in full effect at Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson gave Hendrick its 16th win of the season on Sunday, and pulled within nine points of teammate Jeff Gordon in the race for the Nextel Cup title.
The Roush camp has just four wins this season, Edwards is a distant fourth in the Chase standings and Kenseth is out of title contention in 11th.
And Edwards couldn’t help but notice that an incident between him and Kenseth made it open season for everyone in the garage to weigh in.
“People don’t always understand what’s going on and what’s really happening,” Edwards said. “And I can say that I really learned how people felt about me, which is nice because it definitely seems from what I’ve learned this week that a lot of people don’t mind walking around feeling a certain way about you and then they don’t say how they feel until it’s popular to say it.”
The truth is, Edwards has tried hard to be liked by everyone since his 2004 Cup arrival.
Remember, present-day NASCAR is as much about selling yourself to sponsors and fans as it is about delivering on the track. For Edwards, who was working as a substitute teacher and taking out ads in trade magazines while looking for his big break, endearing himself to the public was one way to solidify his future.
Still, racing is about competition, and driving bumper-to-bumper at high speeds for 500 miles every Sunday can create a conflict or two. That doesn’t always mesh when trying to be popular, and confrontations are bound to happen.
Because Edwards can smile at a rival before the race, then scream at him after doesn’t make him a fraud. It means he’s very much like almost every other driver: Still figuring out the complexities of the Nextel Cup garage and learning how to manage it all.
It takes a long time for most drivers to learn how to walk the line. They don’t just arrive in NASCAR as smart as Jeff Burton, as savvy as Gordon or as polished as Johnson. Along the way, incidents like the one between Edwards and Kenseth arise.
Why is that? Mark Martin, a 25-year veteran of the Cup garage, has it all figured out.
“Being in that garage is just like going to high school,” he said. “You’ve got the people you like, you’ve got the people you tolerate, and you’ve got the people you can’t stand. It’s the same thing.”