There's still time for the winless 99
DOVER, Del. -- Carl Edwards hobbled through the Dover garage on crutches late Sunday afternoon, dodging tire carriers and mechanics as he awkwardly wove his way to a wooden staircase where a golf cart awaited after a steep climb. The trip in many ways was no different than his 400 laps around the "Monster Mile."
An uphill struggle.
"I'd say that's a good analogy -- for today at least," Edwards said.
It's been a good analogy for the past five weeks. Sunday's 11th-place finish was Edwards' best during a stretch in which his average finish is 19.2. It left him 11th in points, 153 behind Mark Martin and 143 behind three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who was celebrating in Victory Lane not far away.
On the surface, it seems as though Edwards' hope of following up last season's amazing run -- a series-high nine race wins and a runner-up finish to Johnson in the standings -- with a championship is over.
Edwards will tell you it doesn't look good.
He also will tell you he's not giving up.
"Hell no!" Edwards said. "We don't ever quit. We get every point we can and see where we end up. Just right now, these last races, we haven't had a car. We've made the most with what we've had, but our cars haven't been fast enough to be up front."
But there is reason for optimism. Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth finished third at Dover International Speedway and ran second for much of the final 100 laps. Greg Biffle qualified fourth and finished 13th. It was one of the better days for the organization in a while.
"Matt's run was encouraging," said Edwards, whose winless season might be the surprise of 2009. "That was good. Mine was not good. But if Matt can do that, we can work on our cars and all of us I feel like all three of us are capable of the same performance."
Will that be good enough? On the surface, it doesn't look like it. Martin and Johnson have put a little distance between them and the rest of the 12-driver Chase field. Their teams appear to be running at a level that won't allow opportunity to catch up.
And while it appears the title is Johnson's to lose, it's easy to understand why Edwards has hope.
Only a year ago, he looked like toast five races into the 10-race playoff, 168 points out after a 33rd-place finish at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Then he went on one of those runs we think only Johnson can make.
He finished third at Martinsville, followed by wins at Atlanta and Texas, a fourth at Phoenix and a win at Homestead.
As much as Johnson admits the Chase races are set up for him, they set up almost as well for Edwards -- if, that is, he can find a little more speed.
"Just on speed, do I think one of our company cars can win?" Kenseth said. "No, I don't. But, anything can happen, and they might be able to get that fixed and get that turned around."
Edwards is the only hope. Biffle sounds too frustrated, complaining that Johnson was given an advantage because he was allowed to test at Dover in August and that the Roush cars don't have enough corner speed.
Edwards is making no excuses. He's getting the most he can out of each situation with the hope that once things go his way, he'll be close enough to take advantage.
We don't ever quit. We get every point we can and see where we end up. Just right now, these last races, we haven't had a car.” -- Carl Edwards
"It's not good times that you learn from," Edwards said almost philosophically. "It's these times like this. Everybody is keeping their heads, though. We don't have guys yelling at the meetings. We don't have people slinging mud.
"It's good. We just have to pull our way out of this."
His optimism is commendable. In many ways, he sounds like Johnson in 2006.
"I think we have it in us," Johnson said at the time. "We were 247 points down in '04 with six races remaining and only lost by eight points."
Johnson was in eighth place, 136 out, after Dover in 2006. He was 165 back after Kansas a week later. He then went on a streak of four seconds and a win to claim his first title.
And before we go any further, the fractured foot Edwards suffered three weeks ago playing Frisbee has had nothing to do with the way the No. 99 has run of late. At least not according to the driver.
"That's the least of my problems," Edwards said. "Listen, it's not my foot. Trust me. We won at Richmond in Nationwide [two weeks ago]. That's a nonfactor once I get in the car.
"I thought we'd come here and win this thing."
Edwards has what he calls "armpits of steel" from three weeks of being on crutches. He's also got a mentality of steel, believing there isn't anything he can't overcome.
If he makes the greatest comeback ever -- at least that's how he likes to think of it -- it will be that mentality that is the difference.
"That's just the way it is," Edwards said of the way his season has gone thus far. "If it wasn't hard, I guess it wouldn't be worth doing it."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.