When a 5-year-old rebroadcast of the closest NASCAR championship finish in history appeared on TV earlier this week, Carl Edwards had to talk himself into watching. He was the loser, after all. The race was taut motorsports theater at its best. But still, he was the loser.
“Turns out it was good for me to relive those emotions because it got me fired up,” Edwards said. “Those last few laps I was driving my guts out. It was a cool battle that could have gone either way.”
In 2011, the Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway went Tony Stewart’s way. Stewart held off Edwards’ charge to win the race and the season championship in a tiebreaker based on his greater number of victories. Had Edwards been a couple seconds faster, he would have won his first Cup.
“I have no regrets because our team made no mistakes,” Edwards said. “Watching it again, I said, ‘Wow, this is motivating.’ When I shut off the TV I was ready to race. It galvanizes you.”
Edwards gets another shot Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400, this time as one of the Cup’s final four that includes Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. The winner-take-all format means that the driver who finishes in front of the other three wins the title.
Edwards typically gives his trophies away to sick or disabled fans, but he might be tempted to keep his first championship Cup if he captures it in Homestead after placing second twice. In 13 years on the circuit, he has a record of 28 wins, 223 top-10s and 22 poles.
Edwards, 37, who drives the No. 19 Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing and is coming off a rain-shortened win at Texas, faces NASCAR’s most consistent performer in Johnson, who is pursuing a seventh Cup that would tie him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time.
Defending champ Busch is Edwards’ teammate but should the two find themselves in close quarters on the 1.5-mile banked oval, Busch would be justified in giving Edwards a nudge. Edwards bumped Busch out of the way to win at Richmond in the spring, and the two exchanged heated words. That incident was preceded by a similar one at Bristol in 2008, with Busch retaliating after the race by ramming Edwards’ car.
“We were running hard, there was contact, and that’s short-track racing,” Edwards said of the Richmond conflict.
Have they repaired the rift enough that they could pool any insights gained during qualifying?
“Depends on whether he’s faster or I’m faster,” Edwards said, laughing. “If he is faster we should definitely share some things.”
Edwards, who hails from Columbia, Missouri, is known as much for his unassuming, gracious personality as his acrobatic backflips off the hood and his stringent workout regimen. Fans loved him when he extracted himself after a spectacular 2009 airborne crash at Talladega and ran across the finish line on foot.
But some rivals are suspicious of the image. Kevin Harvick, who once fought Edwards in the garage at Charlotte, has called him “fake.” Edwards wrecked Brad Keselowski twice early in Keselowski’s career. Edwards threatened Matt Kenseth by cocking his fist during an interview in 2007.
Edwards says he’s simply an aggressive competitor who doesn’t “back down to anyone” on the track. He has tried to remain as humble as he was when he won his first $125 paycheck. One way is by never leaving his hometown — or the house he grew up in — for the NASCAR bubble of Charlotte. Edwards, who got his pilot’s license in high school, flies his Cessna Citation CJ3 to races so he can spend more time with his two children and wife, a doctor at the University of Missouri.
“I was driving down a highway in Phoenix and saw myself on a billboard, and it was surreal to think that I dreamed of being a race-car driver when I was a kid,” he said.
At home, the famously frugal Edwards doesn’t have to play the role of NASCAR star.
“I put on some Vans the other day, which I thought were kind of flashy and my wife said, ‘Wow!’ ” said Edwards, who also makes fun of his ineptitude at social media. “She calls it OMS, Old Man Stuff. I mow the grass before dawn. I watch TV with closed captions. I wear waterproof shoes — just in case.”
Edwards was riding his bike recently when he stopped at Subway, which happens to be one of his major sponsors. He didn’t have his special Subway card or any cash.
“I wanted to eat a breakfast sandwich, but they didn’t know who I was. They were really reluctant to give me one. I said, ‘I swear I’ll pay next time.’ Finally they agreed, ‘Oh, OK,’ ” he said of the employees, no doubt as charmed by Edwards as his fans are.
But make no mistake: That farm-boy grin doesn’t mean Edwards has a gentle foot.
“I remember crossing the line here in second place five years ago and saying to myself, ‘This is not how I want this to end, and I can’t wait for the next opportunity,’ ” he said.
Come Sunday, he’s got it.