- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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DOVER, Del. -- Carl Edwards intently studied data from Friday's first practice on a computer in the back of his hauler, trying to figure out where he stood compared to the rest of his competition for the Nextel Cup championship.
He had to go all the way to 13th to find his name.
But Edwards was happy because he knew his car was fast.
So it was all about perception, which was fitting since the past year and three-quarters have been all about perception for Edwards.
There was the perception that he was as Eddie Haskell-like as Tony Stewart described him last year at Pocono, a guy that was golly-gee-aw-shucks on the outside but causing trouble when nobody was looking.
There was the perception that the 2006 season wasn't very good because he finished 12th in the standings when all he did during the 10 Chase races was score more points than everybody but champion Jimmie Johnson and Stewart.
There was the perception he didn't come into this year's Chase with a lot of momentum when he could have entered with three straight top-three finishes and six straight top-10s had he not blown an engine at Richmond.
"The perception of people is hilarious in this sport," said Edwards, who will start 15th in Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway (1 p.m. ET, ABC). "You have guys that are loud and say all of these things and everybody assumes they're like bad dudes, tough guys. That's not how it is.
"It's not about always being nice. It's about being honest with what's going on. If I'm happy, man, you're going to know. If I'm not happy or I feel somebody is trying to take something from me or do me wrong, I'll beat somebody's ass."
Right now Edwards is happy. He finished 12th in the Chase opener at Loudon with a car with no miles on it. He enters this race eighth in points, 63 behind co-leaders Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
He saw just how quickly that can disappear a week ago, when Clint Bowyer went from 12th and 60 points out to fourth and 15 back with his first career victory.
"Look at Clint," Edwards said. "He might win the championship this year, but if he had missed the Chase by 20 points, everybody would have said, 'Ah, a terrible year.' Now he's a hero."
There's a fine line between what people believe to be the truth and what is the truth in the Cup garage.
"That is how this sport works," Edwards said. "People have these perceptions of what's going on and who's fast and who's running well. But man, there's so many things you don't see."
It's just as fine as the line between what separates those who make it in this series and those who don't.
Getting the opportunity is hard, man. If it was a deal where every year at the beginning of the season you lined up 500 guys at a test session, it would probably be a different field every year if you didn't do it on name or experience, if you just did it on who was fastest.
"Getting the opportunity is hard, man," Edwards said. "If it was a deal where every year at the beginning of the season you lined up 500 guys at a test session, it would probably be a different field every year if you didn't do it on name or experience, if you just did it on who was fastest."
Edwards is the perfect example. He literally had to push business cards and take out ads saying, "If you're looking for a driver, you're looking for me." He had to take odd jobs such as a substitute teacher before anybody took notice.
That finally happened in 2003, when team owner Jack Roush entered him in seven Craftsman Truck Series events. A year later, the Columbia, Mo., native won three races and finished eighth in points.
By 2004, he was tagged as the driver most likely to replace Mark Martin in the No. 6. Before the end of the season he was driving the No. 99 that he currently drives because Jeff Burton prematurely left for Richard Childress Racing.
A year later, he was tied for second in the Chase, 35 points behind winner Tony Stewart.
"That year we won a couple of races and all of a sudden it was, 'We could do this. We're in the Chase for the Championship,'" Edwards said. "It kind of snuck up on me.
"I know it's wrong to think like this, but I'm a worst-case kind of guy. I just assumed we'd finish 10th. When we got out of Phoenix [with two races to go] I was, 'Man, we can win the championship.'"
Now he knows he can.
"There are some times I wish I could start that Chase over again," Edwards said.
Edwards arrived at 24 Raceway in Moberly, Mo., in 2001 in a dirt car that looked like it had been through the wringer a couple of times.
Bowyer arrived in his first asphalt car, all shiny with a chrome bumper, "the nicest thing I'd ever driven."
Edwards won the race.
Bowyer swears Edwards cheated, claiming you could hear his engine from the back straightaway.
"He had to have been cheating," Bowyer said with a laugh.
Edwards smiled and replied, "We might have had a bigger carburetor."
That both are at Dover competing for the championship is a remarkable story. Both admit somebody else easily could have been discovered and they could be struggling in a lower series or not racing at all.
"For a guy right now to be racing street stock in the middle of America, it's really tough for him to get to Nextel Cup without being real savvy marketing-wise or have somebody who is working for him on that," Edwards said.
"I don't think either of us figured we'd be in this position back then," he said. "It's hard. You just have to be persistent and race hard and hope you do well and somebody notices you."
It's getting even harder these days with teams looking outside the sport's grass roots for future stars. Team owner Chip Ganassi brought in former Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya this year and appears set to sign reigning Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti to replace David Stremme in the No. 40.
"But if Franchitti can't win races, it'll be a finite amount of time before he's out of that ride, too," Edwards said. "It's a tough sport. You have to be able to compete and have good people around you."
Edwards believes there always will be rags-to-riches stories like his.
"As long as the guy is very fast, I don't think it matters if your name is Juan Pablo Montoya or Carl Edwards or Clint Bowyer," he said. "Clint and I sure as hell didn't come from Formula One, but we can compete with these guys.
"The guys who really are at the top of the sport are there because they can drive fast. As long as that's the way it stays and they keep the cars [where] the driver makes the difference, drivers will come in on talent."
Edwards still seemed a bit miffed at the suggestion his team didn't perform well last season.
"That's b-------," he said. "We ran pretty well. We finished second at Dover and Loudon. We were the fastest car at Atlanta at the beginning of the year. We were fast, but we were in all of these wrecks.
"Just like Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. is this year. He's fast everywhere. He's one of the best drivers out there, but he didn't make the Chase, just like we didn't. So does that mean we had a terrible year? We were good."
Edwards is better now. He has matured as a driver, his cars are better and his crew is stronger.
He doesn't get mentioned as a dark horse because he's been so close to winning it all, and
he doesn't get mentioned as a favorite because his name is not Johnson, Gordon or Stewart.
He's somewhere in between, which again for him leaves a perception.
"The last four races I felt like our performance has been awesome," Edwards said. "If we can just continue that "
He paused. He knows there's the perception out there that he won't win the title, just as there was the perception he was Mr. Nice Guy until Stewart crashed him and Bowyer a year ago at Pocono.
"It's funny," Edwards said. "People couldn't believe when I want to fight with somebody. When all that stuff went down, I was like, 'Man, these people don't really know me that well.' I'm the first one to stand up and say, 'Hey, this isn't going to happen.'"
The only thing Edwards wants to fight for now is a championship. He's ready to turn perception into reality and show the entire world he's more than backflips and a Hollywood smile.
He's ready to show that the 2005 season wasn't a fluke and that sometimes nice guys can finish first.
"I live in Columbia, Mo.," he said. "I go back home. I spend time around my family and friends. From when I first got into Cup until now, I'm way more at ease. I try not to read stuff or get caught up in things.
"It's hard to explain. I would have never understood how this whole deal works before I got here."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carl Edwards understands perception vs. reality. Reality, in his mind, makes him a contender for the title, writes David Newton.