CHICAGO -- One of the more unlikely championship contenders for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has been in this situation before. Yet he's laid low and steered clear of the spotlight despite residing in the upper tier of the points race for the bulk of the season.
Few people were more surprised than Carl Edwards to see his No. 99 atop the heap.
"Yeah, I am under my own radar," Edwards said Thursday during NASCAR Chase Media Day at Chicago's Navy Pier. "We got done with the Richmond race and I told the guys on Monday that I looked up at the scoreboard and I didn't understand what the order was. Someone told me that was the points. They said I won the points for the first 26 points. I thought that couldn't be true, that we weren't that fast. It turns out we are.
"I would say that we are under the radar, and to say that is an understatement. I think we can do it. I feel really good about it."
Edwards' triumph in last weekend's Federated Auto Parts 400 was his second of 2013, but his first since the second race of the season, at Phoenix in March. With the win and dramatically improved performance over the last three weeks, Edwards was brimming with confidence on the eve of the first Chase race weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in nearby Joliet, Ill.
With all the hoopla and hubbub over team orders, manipulating race results and heavy penalties this week, it was easy to lose sight of Edwards' return to title candidacy one year after missing the Chase and two years after finishing as the runner-up to eventual champion Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker. It also shifted the focus off the Richmond race's final restart, where Edwards beat race leader Paul Menard to the start-finish line after Menard spun his much-older tires in an attempt to get going.
Edwards said since he lined up for the restart to Menard's right, he could hear the leader's throttle response through his header pipes through his driver door safety net. When Menard slipped after restarting the race, Edwards said he had a tenth of a second to decide whether to accelerate and cross the line first or slow to allow Menard to regain grip and risk stacking up the field.
Edwards chose the former.
"Fortunately NASCAR saw that he spun his tires and Paul said he spun the tires, but I think that is something that is very difficult," said Edwards, who was not penalized. "What if he had 100 laps on the tires and not grip and the whole field had four? Are we all supposed to go at his pace? I don't know the answer to that. I think that either, not just as the second-place guy, but as the leader it puts everyone in a tough position."
In the wake of the Michael Waltrip Racing penalties that grew from the Richmond finish, the controversy recalled a slightly similar issue regarding helping teammates involving Edwards earlier this season. As Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle drove to his lone victory of the year at Michigan International Speedway in June, he opted not to fall back to assist Edwards in clearing a piece of debris from his grille in the late stages, prompting Edwards to say of Biffle, "He ain't our teammate."
While their Michigan flap certainly didn't reach the scope or intent of MWR's actions at Richmond, it did help to bring the longtime Roush stablemates closer together, thanks to a productive talk between Edwards and Biffle the following weekend at Sonoma Raceway.
"It has strengthened our organization," Biffle said. "We understand each other and respect one another. We go out of our way to try to help one another. ... I think that was a watershed moment in Roush Fenway that would make a difference long term. It is good it happened when it did, where it did and how it did."
The turnaround didn't happen in an instant after the Sonoma heart-to-heart as Edwards still lagged in performance. As he continued to accumulate consistent if not spectacular finishes to stay either second or third in points from April to September, Edwards still wasn't contending for race wins, allowing frustration to mount during the midseason months.
"That was not really a fun time because it is actually hard to complain about your performance when you are second in points but we knew we were not fast," Edwards said. "There were guys way faster than us and we've turned that corner. It is better now. It is kind of hard to explain to people when they say, 'Hey great, you are second in points.' And you are like, 'Yeah, but if the Chase started today we would be 10th.' We aren't in that position now, so that is good."
Nothing typifies the shift in momentum for Edwards like the last three weeks. While engine failure derailed his shot at Bristol and a run-in with Jeff Gordon plus unfortunate pit timing stymied him at Atlanta, Edwards' No. 99 Ford was running up front, leading laps and inserting its car number into the conversation for victories.
Despite the uptick in performance, Edwards couldn't pinpoint any one factor in the improvement. He just hopes it continues.
"No, that is the interesting thing; it hasn't been one thing," Edwards said. "It is pretty interesting, when things start going bad, people can either split up and point fingers or rally together and work. (Roush Fenway general manager) Robbie Reiser, (owner) Jack Roush and all our guys, they are not guys that are going to jump up and down when they win and throw their hats when they lose. They will just keep working. We have hard-working guys, and that work is paying off. It seems like it is coming at the right time."
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