FONTANA, Calif. – Carl Edwards hopped out of his car, a smile stretching from ear to ear. He hadn't a moment to think before he found a microphone thrust into his face asking for his reaction to winning in Las Vegas.
After rattling off the obligatory sponsor acknowledgements, Edwards said this: "When you're a kid, you think, 'Boy, how cool would it be to go to Vegas, fly a bunch of women there on your private plane and race cars.' And I did it. I brought my mom, my mother-in-law, my daughter and me. We came here, we raced and we did it."
Right off the cuff. Just like that. No teleprompter, no public relations hack whispering in his ear. It was simply Edwards being a likeable, aw-shucks guy from middle America who's living the dream and supremely aware of how lucky he is.
Or at least that's how it came across.
Either Carl Edwards is one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet or a complete and utter fraud. There is no in-between.
On the surface, it's the former.
When debris from his flying car injured a girl two years ago at Talladega, he called her up to see how she was doing. He gave a kid confined to a wheelchair his trophy after winning in Atlanta. And he's recently taken to climbing through the catch fence to celebrate a victory with the fans.
In his dealings with media, he frequently compliments reporters on their questions, thanks them when an interview is done and, when holding court in the garage on Friday at Auto Club Speedway, paused whenever a nearby engine revved so that everyone and their tape recorders could pick up his every word.
Polite, thoughtful, but is it an act?
This is, after all, the same guy who initiated a shoving match with teammate Matt Kenseth, got physical with Kevin Harvick, purposely wrecked Brad Keselowski on multiple occasions and, most recently, declared he still "owes" Kyle Busch one for getting wrecked a few weeks ago at Phoenix, an incident for which Busch immediately apologized.
Edwards has been called "fake" by Harvick, essentially been described as self-righteous by Keselowski and, after the 2007 altercation with Kenseth, had fellow teammate Greg Biffle tell a SPEED audience that his "true colors are coming out."
Not surprisingly, Edwards sees things differently. He comes from a position of sticking up for what he believes is right.
He's glad to be on the opposite side as Harvick because, as he explained last season, "when people like that question me, it makes me feel better because if those people were lined up patting me on the back I'd be on the wrong side of what's right and wrong."
In explaining why he feels Busch still owes him one despite Busch having apologized, Edwards said, "It's nothing personal. That deal at Phoenix cost me 28 points, at least in my opinion. So the least he can give up is one spot."
Harvick has said Edwards can't be both the nice guy and the bully. But in Carl's world, he can, because when you wreck someone who's wrecked you, you aren't being a bully; you're sticking up for what's right.
If you're an affable bully and you do this, you're called The Intimidator. If you're an awkward brat, you're called Rowdy Busch. And if you're polite as Wally Cleaver, some call you Cousin Carl, others call you a big old fake.
For the past few years, the prevailing sentiment has been that Jimmie Johnson's dominance is driving the sport down, and that Kyle Busch and his brash attitude is just what NASCAR needs to pick it back up.
It's time to throw Edwards to the forefront of that talk, and not because he's looking like the driver to beat in the early stage of the 2011 season, but because he's the perfect hybrid of good and bad. Whereas some fans find Johnson too likeable, Busch too detestable, Edwards possesses a likeability equal to Johnson's and a despise-ability that rivals Busch's.
However you see him, Edwards evokes an emotion, which is precisely what NASCAR needs.