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Cousin Carl long overdue

6/27/2009 - NASCAR

LOUDON, N.H. -- NASCAR needs Carl Edwards winning again. Bad. Soon.

Now there you go. I can sense you pounding out your e-mails slamming "Flipper," or "Cousin Carl."

Just be advised that you're making my point for me as you type.

Edwards' winning again would enliven things considerably -- one way or another. Either you'd love to see him win, or you'd love to see him backflip so you can grumble.

"Yes, NASCAR needs him up there [running up front]," Jimmie Johnson said Friday. Johnson is the driver who would have been Edwards' archrival last year, when both were winning big, if they weren't such good friends.

"But in a very selfish way, I don't miss him up there," Johnson admitted, "because he's one helluva competitor."

"You know our old saying that we don't want everybody to be vanilla?" said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications. "Carl is sort of a combination of strawberry and chocolate -- actually, he's a banana split."

Edwards is the rarest of drivers nowadays, both good boy and bad boy, the perfect corporate pitchman, with a temper. He can run on the ragged edge of going too far, both on and off the track, and then gather it back.

Hunter is an old-liner who never can conceal his enjoyment of a little Tabasco on the steady diet of everyday NASCAR. He knows -- maybe better than anybody else in the entire sanctioning body -- what appeals and sells.

Of the garage-area scuffle Edwards had with Kevin Harvick last fall, Hunter said, "So what? So what?

"I remember somebody asking, 'Are y'all penalizing him for choking Harvick?'" Hunter said. "I said, 'Choking? He had him in a headlock.'" Hunter shrugged.

But Edwards hasn't had much of a forum for showing his stuff this season.

Last year he led the Sprint Cup Series with nine wins, including three of the last four, and challenged Johnson for the championship down to the wire.

This year he's winless in Cup, and hadn't even gotten in a single victory backflip until last Saturday night at Milwaukee. And that was in a Nationwide race.

Now, "We come back to a track just like Milwaukee in a lot of ways," Edwards said of flat, 1-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he'll have a Nationwide race Saturday to prep for Sunday's Cup event.

On the Cup side, isn't this losing beginning to hurt down deep?

"I'm not too worried about the fact that we haven't won, because I feel like we've performed well enough to have won two or three different races," he said.

Now notice that solid grammar. How often do you hear that from a NASCAR driver? That's why Edwards is a different kind of NASCAR representative to the mainstream public than anyone before him.

In Formula One there's the term "technological leapfrog." That is, when a team is winning, it sticks with what's working, while other teams experiment and eventually leapfrog to an advantage.

In Edwards' case, "the reason, probably, that we haven't won is just what you're saying," he said. "We were so good at a lot of tracks last year. You kind of sit and you wait to see what happens. People get ahead of you, then you work a little bit harder. It seems like lately we've been picking up. …

"If we were running 20th, it would hurt really bad, but right now I feel like we're right there, we know what we need to do, and the wins will come."

So it's not so much a matter of pain as anxiety.

"No, it doesn't hurt. But I can't wait. It's going to feel good when we win."

And not just to Edwards.

"It would be good if he won," Hunter said.

With Edwards missing from the show up front, NASCAR languishes in the doldrums this summer. The only thing colorful about Kasey Kahne, bless his good and talented heart, is his red driving uniform. Mark Martin is everybody's sentimental favorite, so his wins are feel-good, but not pot-stirring. Tony Stewart is colorful enough, but so far he hasn't hit one of those patented streaks that make him really blaze.

When Edwards is running up front, he doesn't win dull, and he doesn't lose dull.

It says a lot about his driving style that his most thrilling finish last year was not one of his wins, but a loss -- his dive underneath Johnson at Kansas City, and his slide job in attempt to win, which netted him a scrape with the wall that let Johnson get away.

This year, Edwards' most publicized moment -- and how! -- was his flight into the catch-fence at Talladega an eye blink after he lost a wreck-or-win duel with Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman came along and launched him.

Which brings us back to Edwards' superlatives as a representative of NASCAR to the general public. Video of the Talladega wreck was so spectacular that it landed Edwards on "Larry King Live," and Edwards played the old boy like a violin. King asked questions that ranged from irrelevant to totally off-the-wall, and Edwards churned out articulate answers anyway.

Just last Thursday, when Edwards and I were in a friendly debate on ESPN's "NASCAR Now," my remote link was cut off abruptly. Edwards carried on solo -- better, I admit, than if I'd been able to continue.

Local TV? No problem, regardless of location. Lightning-fast, when somebody asked Edwards what he likes about New Hampshire as a place, he mesmerized the locals: "'Live Free or Die' is just a cool license plate."

You can bet that sound bite will run all across New England.

Guys like that need to be out front. Vanilla just doesn't break the summer doldrums quite like a banana split.

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