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Head Over Heels About His Job

Edwards, known for his victory back flips, is grateful to make a living racing after struggles

November 12, 2005|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, Carl Edwards was at Irwindale Speedway to drive a Silver Crown car in a U.S. Auto Club race. When he wasn't on the track, he was handing out business cards that read: "Carl Edwards: Race Car Driver. If You're Looking for a Driver, You're Looking for Me."

Two years later, unable to find sponsors, he worked as a substitute teacher while attending the University of Missouri. He also placed an advertisement in National Speed Sport News, seeking a ride.

Jack Roush, always on the lookout for young drivers, saw it and hired Edwards to drive one of his trucks in NASCAR's third-ranking Craftsman series.

Truth is, Roush had spotted Edwards driving a truck for Mike Mittler's underfunded team and liked what he saw, and the ad told him Edwards was available for the 2003 season. It took only a season and a half for Roush to move him into the struggling Jeff Burton's seat in the No. 99 Nextel Cup Ford.

Today, he is the most intriguing driver in NASCAR. Chevrolet drivers Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson are battling for the Nextel Cup championship with two races remaining in the Chase for the Championship -- Sunday at Phoenix and Nov. 20 at Homestead, Fla. -- but the back-flipping driver from Columbia, Mo., has won the last two races and is still in the running, 77 points behind Stewart and 39 behind Johnson.

No matter the problem, the big John Elway-like smile on Edwards' face never shuts down. Of course, there haven't been many problems this season, what with four victories, 12 top-five finishes and one pole at California Speedway.

His confidence never wavers. After Edwards had won last week at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Roush said he was looking ahead to 2006, because Stewart was too far ahead to be caught.

"What are you talking about, Jack?" Edwards protested. "Winning this championship is a lot closer to a realistic goal than just that fact that I'm here. I don't know if that's the right way to put it, but five years ago, I'd never raced on a pavement racetrack and people were laughing at me for passing out business cards, so this is not the biggest challenge of my life, by any means.

"We're going to try and win these races. We probably won't beat Tony Stewart ... but that's not going to stop us from giving 100%. For sure, I want to prove [Roush] wrong....

"The reality of the Chase is that it could come down to the last lap at Homestead."

When Roush moved Edwards up to his Nextel Cup team in midseason last year, he was thought of as a work in progress, there to learn from his teammates -- the two most recent Cup champions, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth, a four-time runner-up in Mark Martin and Greg Biffle, a Busch series and Craftsman truck champion.

Edwards had raced in only one Busch race and had never been in a Nextel Cup car.

This season, Roush qualified all five of his drivers for the 10-driver Chase, but now only Edwards is a contender.

Race after race, the 26-year-old Missourian has confounded experts who expect him to crack under the pressure of contending for the $5-million Nextel Cup champion's purse. Instead, he has kept smiling, making the most of his opportunity, doing back flips for the fans when he wins.

How, others ponder, does he stay so unaffected? A vignette from his youth may explain it:

"When I first started out racing, I was so poor that I slept in my truck at racetracks to save money. Back home in Columbia, I had an old car with a bad starter, so I would park it on a hill and when I wanted to drive it, I would jump in, let it start rolling down the hill and start it with the clutch."

So adversity is nothing new, and neither is racing. As a youngster, he traveled with his father, Mike, who won more than 200 races driving modified stock cars and midgets for four decades on Midwestern tracks. Carl was 13 when he began racing four-cylinder mini-sprints in 1993.

His work ethic is as impressive as his enthusiasm.

When Roush moved him into a Cup car, he was still driving the team's Craftsman truck. He had won the season opener at Daytona, giving him an opportunity to show his trademark back flip to a national audience for the first time, and was in the running for the season championship.

To meet schedule conflicts, he once drove the truck Saturday in Las Vegas, then flew all night to Dover, Del., to drive in the Cup race the next day. Several weeks later, he drove the truck at California Speedway and a day later was in Talladega, Ala., for another Cup race.

He had his breakthrough weekend last March in Atlanta, where he won his first Busch race on Saturday and proclaimed it "the greatest day of my life," then had to revise his thoughts after winning his first Nextel Cup race the next day.

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