Commentary

Edwards took best shot, but NASCAR's vagaries let Johnson get up

Carl Edwards spent the entire race Sunday trying to land a haymaker on Jimmie Johnson's chin. Edwards did his part with a win, but the vagaries of the Chase let JJ up off the canvas, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: November 3, 2008, 8:24 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Carl EdwardsAP Photo/Matt SlocumCarl Edwards got to park on the pretty paint for the second straight week and second time at Texas this season. He also cut Jimmie Johnson's points lead to 106.

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Carl Edwards threw haymakers at Jimmie Johnson throughout most of Sunday's Dickies 500, trying to pulverize Johnson's lead in the Chase.

But NASCAR's playoff system has an unfixable flaw, and that helped soften the blow of Edwards' second straight win and eighth of the season.

He had to settle for a TKO on a fuel-mileage gamble, and a decent but not devastating cut into Johnson's lead after Johnson nursed a fitfully handling car home 15th, one lap down.

Still, "I feel satisfied that we did take a chunk out of that lead," Edwards said after cutting Johnson's cushion from 183 points to 106.

But that's still fairly comfortable. Edwards still needs to stay on his winning streak while Johnson has to have an awful finish in one of the last two races.

Edwards was more than dominant -- overwhelming is a better word -- through most of the race. He put Johnson on the ropes by lapping cars with blitzkrieg regularity, pushing Johnson farther and farther out of reach of a free pass back into the lead lap.

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To be Lucky Dog, you have to be the first car one lap down. At one point Edwards had shoved Johnson all the way back to the eighth car one lap down.

Then the Chase's flaw reared its head with 61 laps left. A non-contender for either the Chase or the race itself broke the rhythms of both, not for reasonable racing purposes but for a temperamental payback wreck.

David Gilliland intentionally wrecked Juan Pablo Montoya -- so blatantly that NASCAR parked Gilliland for the rest of the race -- bringing out a long caution because Montoya's mangled car got stuck on the pit road.

No other sport allows all the losers to keep right on trucking through the playoffs, getting in the way and affecting events.

In NFL terms, this would be like the Bengals' defense being allowed to run onto the field during a Giants-Patriots Super Bowl and create havoc in the fourth quarter.

Yet the ever effervescent Edwards took a win as a win: "I can't imagine being upset at David Gilliland for what he did, because we're sitting here with a big ring and a cowboy hat," he said of two bonus prizes for winning at Texas Motor Speedway.

But Gilliland's antics had turned Edwards from an overpowering force into a squeaker winner. The wreck and long caution had opened the way for various pit strategies that scrambled the running order, and it let Johnson's crew adjust his car some more.

Edwards took four tires, but six others took only two, so he came out seventh and got stuck for 51 laps in dirty air, struggling.

His progress was so poor that Edwards had to stay out while others pitted. He retook the lead with 13 laps to go, but then had to risk running out of gas in the waning laps.

So the dominator had to back into the win, backing off the throttle to conserve fuel and hoping he wouldn't be overtaken by Jeff Gordon, who finished second.

"I'd never had [crew chief Bob Osborne] yell at me for going too fast, but he did tonight," Edwards said. "I was just so nervous … I thought there's no way we can go this slow and save this much fuel and still be leading this race."

Johnson's big points lead coming into the race was what caused Osborne to take the fuel risk.

[+] EnlargeCarl Edwards
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezCarl Edwards has taken his best shots at Jimmie Johnson for two straight weeks.

"If the points were closer or we were in the lead, no, we would not have made that type of decision to gamble," Osborne said.

Edwards did acknowledge that "of all the ways you can win a race, fuel mileage isn't the most exciting way. But we had the dominant car all day. The car was very fast, and we got behind on the last pit stop, and it was very cool to still win the thing."

Edwards' bubbly mood might largely have sprung from the contrast to last weekend, when he won at Atlanta only to find that Johnson, who had been struggling most of that day, had stormed back to a second-place finish.

That time, Edwards did his traditional backflip off his car thinking he'd taken a chunk out of Johnson's lead, only to learn in Victory Lane that he'd gained only 15 points.

This time, he gained 77, and won the race two ways -- first with brute force, then with finesse.

Said Gordon, Johnson's mentor and teammate, "I think [Edwards and Osborne] knew that if they took a gamble and it paid off, that would pay off big in the points.

"Unfortunately for Jimmie, it did."

Big, but Edwards still didn't land the haymaker.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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