By Jerry Bonkowski
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Carl Edwards does not forget his roots. Less than 10 years ago, he was a nearly broke substitute teacher in Columbia, Mo., as well as a reserve sheriff’s deputy. He basically did whatever he could to earn money to support his dream of one day becoming a professional race car driver.
“At the time I’d have given anything for someone to give me a break,” Edwards said recently.
Fortunately for Edwards, someone did give him a break: legendary team owner Jack Roush, who plucked Edwards out of middle America and had him come race for him. With a combination of great talent, hard work and outstanding support from Roush Fenway Racing, Edwards is now one of the biggest stars in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.
Oftentimes called NASCAR’s All-American boy for being a good-looking, devoted father and husband, Edwards is also lauded for his friendly attitude, his outstanding physical conditioning and, most importantly, giving back to try and help others, much like he was helped along the way when he was chasing his dream.
“I’m really grateful for the time I spent struggling to try to make it in because during that time I learned all these things that I think if it would have been given to me early on, I would not have been as good,” Edwards said.
Last season was without question the biggest of Edwards’ eight-year Sprint Cup career. He and Tony Stewart engaged in one of the greatest championship battles in NASCAR history. In fact, when Stewart won the season-ending race at Homestead, Fla., he wound up in a tie for the championship with Edwards.
For only a few seconds, unfortunately, for the man they call Cousin Carl.
Stewart was ultimately crowned the Cup champion when NASCAR was forced to go to the first tie-breaker to break the championship deadlock. And with Stewart having five wins to Edwards’ one, all five coming in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, Edwards was forced to settle for runner-up.
Having come so close and nearly tasting what it’s like to be a Cup champion, Edwards has dedicated 2012 to being the year he finally breaks through and earns that elusive Cup title. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of others who also believe he can achieve that goal: in several preseason polls of both media members and fans, Edwards has been the driver of choice to win this year’s Cup championship.
Being picked as the popular choice to unseat Stewart as champion may put pressure on Edwards, but it can’t be any more dramatic than the pressure he faced heading into the season finale at Homestead, facing Stewart and coming oh so close to being the champ. In fact, had Edwards finished just one position higher in any of the 10 Chase races, he would have stolen the Cup crown from Stewart and there would have been no need for NASCAR to invoke the tiebreaker.
“I go out and do the best I can and I’m a realist,” Edwards said. “There’s a reality in the world and the reality is we finished second, so that’s just it. I didn’t really have much trouble with that, but what I had trouble with was the waiting for this season – just sitting around with no racing, trying to get up in the morning and find constructive things to go do, because I’m ready to go race. I cannot wait to get in that race car on Sunday.”
With his appetite whetted from the end of last season and the hunger for success still watering in his mouth, Edwards is ready to finally add his name to the list of Cup champions in 2012. And it all starts with the sport’s biggest race.
“Daytona is one of those races you go to and you do everything you can (to win),” Edwards said. “You get one shot at it a year and, for me personally, last year was really close. I learned a lot. I feel like I’m getting better at these restrictor plate races and understanding how to maximize my chances of winning because at the end of the day these races still have a lot of chance involved.
“I think that’s what makes this a special race because you only have one shot at it a year. It’s a race that anything can happen. You just never know what’s going to happen.”
Edwards has never won the Daytona 500, but he came oh so close in last year’s race, pushing rookie Trevor Bayne to the win. One year later and starting from the pole, the driver of the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusion is not only primed to take the field to the green flag Sunday, he arguably has perhaps his best chance ever of finally winning the Great American Race.
“Trevor went down and blocked and he did what he had to do and it worked out,” Edwards said. “There was really nothing else, after looking at the replay and everything, I could really do.
“(Bayne’s) car was very fast. He did a good job and that’s how it turned out. In hindsight, for Trevor to have won that race and then to go through everything he went through last year, it couldn’t have happened to a better guy to win the Daytona 500.”
Had the roles been reversed in last year’s 500, Edwards would have won and Bayne would have finished second. Unfortunately for Edwards, it didn’t work out that way and he was forced to go another year in search of his first win in NASCAR’s so-called Super Bowl.
But there’s no shame in coming up short for Edwards, as several other veteran drivers have yet to earn a 500 win, including Stewart and veteran Mark Martin.
“The fun part about this sport is just going out and doing the very best you can,” Edwards said. “If you win, it’s a great feeling. I was close enough to at least get a taste of how great this race would feel to win and be able to be right there and have a shot at it and then get to talk to Trevor a lot about it. It would be an amazing race to win.”
Yet despite coming so close in last year’s race and being on the pole for Sunday’s race, Edwards is not coming in with a mindset that he’s due to win at the legendary 2 ½-mile high-banked oval.
“No, I never feel like I’m owed anything,” Edwards said. “I go out and do the best I can and if I win I win, and if I don’t, then at least I know I did the very best I could, but I don’t ever feel like this sport owes me anything.
“I feel that I owe this sport a lot and I feel I have a huge opportunity every time I get to put on this driver’s suit and go drive the race car. I’ve already surpassed my wildest dreams 100 times over. I never thought I’d be able to do this, so for me, it’s a big adventure and I go out there and do the best I can -- and if we win the 500 and win the championship, then that would be unbelievable.”
(For The Sports Xchange)