Fan support fuels slumping Edwards
CONCORD, N.C. -- Carl Edwards emerged from the elevator following a Sunday afternoon question-and-answer session in a sponsor suite at Charlotte Motor Speedway and began making his way toward his golf cart.
First one fan recognized him.
All of a sudden Edwards was enveloped in a sea of fans, most of whom couldn't believe the Sprint Cup star was among them alone under the grandstands only a few hours before the start of NASCAR's longest race.
"You really are Carl Edwards, aren't you?" one woman said as she reached out to touch the driver of the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing car.
Edwards smiled and replied, "Yes ma'am. I am."
The rest of the trip to the cart was painstakingly slow as Edwards struggled to get away without hurting anybody's feelings. It was a preface to what he would go through for 600 miles, struggling to a 16th-place finish that extended his winless streak to 49 races.
But at the moment the fans weren't concerned with the losing streak or that Edwards wouldn't be a factor for a top-10, much less a win. They weren't concerned that since a year ago at Pocono, Edwards has led only nine laps after leading 1,282 in 2008, when he topped the series with nine victories.
They just wanted a moment with the driver, and he gave it to them.
In a way this was a reminder of the story Edwards told at the start of the one-hour, three-stop tour that began and ended at his motor coach on this hot, muggy day.
"One time we were at a track back in Missouri and my dad said, 'Hey, you have to remember some of these people, they work on the car all week and they bring it to the track and they run 12th every week and they'll probably never win a race their whole career. They love racing. Even more than that they are the fans that are loyal to the sport,'" Edwards recalled.
"It's pretty cool to see people who really, really enjoy it."
It's even more rewarding when the fans who followed you when you dominated continue to follow you through the tough times. That was more than obvious as Edwards went from one screaming audience to another.
"It's not hard to get pumped up when you hear fans like that," Edwards said after his first stop at the Sprint Experience.
Such prerace duties are hard enough on drivers when they're doing well. You want to focus on the race and everything it will take to be successful. They're even tougher when you're basically irrelevant, as Edwards has become since nearly winning the title in 2008.
But watching Edwards move from fan to fan, you couldn't tell if he was leading the points or last.
"All these folks spend their hard-earned money to watch us race," said Edwards, clinging to 11th in points headed into Pocono. "That's what makes it what it is. Our job is to be fast and win races, and that's what we're focused on.
"But what I really take heart in [is] these fans and all they sacrifice to be here to watch us."
Perhaps Edwards can relate because he was a fan long before he was a star. He told the group in the Scotts suite about how he and a friend used to come to Charlotte Motor Speedway, climb into the flag stand and flip the caution lights on and off.
"It's pretty neat to actually be in a race car and driving," Edwards said with a smile.
Underneath that smile Edwards was frustrated. He didn't come here to finish 12th every week. He came to win, as he made look so simple at times two years ago.
He also knows pouting or pitching a fit because things aren't going his way won't make the team better. He knows he's driving the same way he did two years ago and has the same personnel around him that lost the '08 title by 69 points to Jimmie Johnson.
"Oh, I'm frustrated," Edwards said. "But what am I supposed to do? Go piss and moan and whine? Pouting doesn't help anything. Being irrational doesn't help, either. You have to look at why we're not actually running well. That's because the car won't go fast enough through the corner. We just have to fix that."
What's impressive about Edwards is that he's gotten the most out of a bad situation, finishing fifth through 16th 11 times to keep him in the Chase picture. Lesser drivers might be fighting to stay in the top 35.
"What Carl and his team have going for them is yes they aren't running like they want, but they're hanging in there," said Martin Truex Jr., who is 14th in points. "When it comes time when they figure it out, and if they're still in the hunt, they can take advantage of it."
Roush Fenway Racing president Geoff Smith said literally a hundred projects are going on to find a solution, understanding this is a company issue and not an Edwards issue. But what Smith admires about Edwards is the way he hasn't let performance impact attitude.
"Carl is as mentally tough as he is physically tough," Smith said. "His attitude is simply, 'Just keep doing my thing, we'll get it.'"
You could see that as Edwards visited with fans and sponsors. Amazingly, not one asked why he or the team was struggling. They were more interested in personal stuff, such as how life has been since he became a father in February and how he and Brad Keselowski are getting along since Edwards sent the Penske Racing driver airborne in the final laps at Atlanta.
On the fatherhood front, all you need to know is Edwards was about five minutes late to start this tour because he couldn't stop playing with Anne's belly button. As for Keselowski, Edwards said, "Brad and I get along better than ever."
He means that. Seeing his rival flip similar to how he did when Keselowski got into the back of his car last spring on the last lap at Talladega had a huge impact on Edwards.
"I will not be wrecking anybody intentionally," he told the crowd. "I will take care of that some other way."
The only flip Edwards wants to do is the one he patented off the car door after his first victory in 2005. He really hasn't been in position to do one since last year at Pocono, when he led 103 laps.
This is my dream. I like racing, I like racing in a lot of races. But I really like being successful in races. That's what makes it really fun.” -- Carl Edwards
"It's been a long time since I've done one, so hopefully I don't mess it up," Edwards said. "The crowd generally is always interested in me winning and all that. I've learned about half of them just want to say they saw me fall down [for the first time]."
The crowd laughed.
Edwards enjoys entertaining the fans. He wants more than anything to be accepted by them. You could hear that in his voice two weeks ago as he said how much it would mean to be voted by the fans into the All-Star Race only seconds before being notified he was.
You could hear it again as he thanked the crowd at the Sprint Experience.
"That was one of the greatest moments of my career," Edwards said.
There are no signs here of what Kevin Harvick called the "fake" Edwards after a run-in with him in 2008 that ultimately turned physical and earlier this year after the Keselowski incident.
Edwards didn't put on any pretenses about anything, even the good smell of fried fish as the cart pulled away from the stands.
No, the most buff driver in the garage hasn't tossed his healthy eating habits because of the losing streak. But he admitted the smell was tempting and reminded he didn't always eat like he does today.
"Heck no," said Edwards, whose abs are the envy of most in the garage. "I used to make fun of people that eat like me."
The journey ended with Edwards outside his motor coach door. Inside, Anne was waiting for Daddy to tickle her belly one more time before he climbed into the car for another race that wouldn't help the frustration level.
But other than performance, life is great for Edwards, "the best it's ever been."
"That's good," he said. "That's the hard stuff. Racing should be the simplest part. I just hope we can get a little faster. I know we can. It's hard to race the same tracks against the same people that two years ago it seemed pretty easy to win races against."
"This is my dream," he continued. "I like racing, I like racing in a lot of races. But I really like being successful in races. That's what makes it really fun."
Yes, this really is Carl Edwards.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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