Edwards still making big leaps

Updated: August 26, 2004, 3:35 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

It's going to be a busy four days for Carl Edwards, but the 25-year-old driver isn't complaining. Far from it.

On Wednesday night, Edwards won his third Craftsman Truck Series race of the season, taking the checkers on a typically wild night at Bristol Motor Speedway. The victory put his Roush Racing team back into the thick of the championship race.

On Thursday, he'll begin practicing and then will attempt to qualify for Friday's Busch Series race. This attempt -- in a car owned by Robby Benson -- is so he can gain experience for his newest job.

Fresh off a shocking 10th-place finish last weekend in his Nextel Cup Series debut at Michigan, Edwards will be back in his No. 99 Ford Taurus on Friday morning. Instead of having the luxury of one of the sport's widest tracks to ease the transition -- as was the case at Michigan -- he'll be adapting to one of the tightest, and craziest, venues on the circuit.

To say things happen quickly at Bristol isn't doing the word "quick" justice.

Then again, warp speed is also an apt description for Edwards' climb up the NASCAR ladder.

After all, it wasn't that many years ago that Edwards was handing out business cards with his picture on them. Next to the photo, it read: "If you're looking for a driver, you're looking for me."

Edwards once estimated that he handed out around 5,000 cards.

"People made fun of me and laughed at me," he told NASCAR Scene shortly after being hired by Roush Racing in 2003. "I've taken a whole lot of criticism. [The] bottom line is I just wanted everybody to know I want to drive."

To say Edwards is now having the last laugh would be an understatement. Gone are the days of working as a substitute teacher in his native Missouri to support his racing career. And after winning the 2003 truck race at Indianapolis Raceway Park, he didn't have to hitchhike home -- though he'd done just that from the venue three years earlier after sticking around the track an extra night to watch the truck series event.

He celebrated the win that evening with his now customary back flip off the back of his truck. It was also accompanied with a huge smile, one that's already made Edwards a fan favorite.

Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards is most known for his backflips after winning Truck Series races.

His engaging personality has won over fans, but it was a combination of that personality and raw talent that won over owner Jack Roush. It was after Edwards won the season-opening truck race at Daytona back in February that Roush anointed Edwards as Mark Martin's eventual successor with the No. 6 team.

That move was expected to take place in 2006, giving Edwards next season to adapt to the Busch Series while running up to seven Cup events in '05. That all changed when Jeff Burton informed Roush he wouldn't return next season.

Roush could have put a veteran in the No. 99 car the rest of this year, but didn't hesitate in making the move to Edwards.

"He's an intelligent, want-to-learn kind of guy," Roush says. "He comes from a great family. His mother is a great competitive person, and he gets great support from his father.

"Carl is out of the same fold as Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, and Jeff Burton and his brother, Ward. At his age, they all looked, I'm sure, pretty much the same. Carl is so good with the media and he's so good with his team. He carries so much energy, just around with him, that he spreads [it] on everybody that he touches. It's going to be great to watch that team rejuvenate itself around Carl."

Not to say Roush has high expectations, but this is how he summed up Edwards' prospects.

"Carl will be as good as anybody in this business has been. He's young and with a lot of time," Roush says. "We didn't need to put him into Cup this year, but it'll be fine, the same as it was fine with Kurt Busch and for Matt Kenseth, it will be fine for him."

Edwards, meanwhile, is just trying to take this latest step in stride, the way he has every other jump the past few years. Asked if the move to Cup is too much, too soon, Edwards insisted it wasn't.

"If I thought it wasn't a good idea, I'd say so," Edwards says. "But I do feel like if we focus hard enough and I can learn enough and pick this up fast enough this year, I feel like we have a legitimate shot at running for a championship next year. That's what everyone on the team, deep down that's the goal. That's saying a lot considering I've never raced one of these, but deep down that's what I think anything that will prepare us better for that is better than kind of holding back and going for that short-term goal, which would be rookie of the year. I don't know that it will hurt my career or help it. I don't know."

Edwards drove for an underfunded truck series team owned by Mike Mittler in 2002, two years after he began helping the team on a volunteer basis. His runs with the team opened a few eyes and he was going to run with the team for as long as Mittler's finances would allow last year.

Until Geoff Smith called, that is. Smith, Roush Racing's president, called shortly before the start of the '03 campaign to offer Edwards a ride after Kyle Busch opted to sign a contract with Hendrick Motorsports instead of joining older brother Kurt at Roush. And when Burton elected to move on this season, Smith again gave Edwards the news his career was taking yet another huge step.

"He tells me he makes the bad calls, too," Edwards says of Smith, "but so far all of his phone calls to me have been great calls."

Smith says sponsorship is in place for Edwards' Cup team for 2005, which is one reason the goal is to get the driver as much experience as possible this season instead of running him in just a handful of events. It might seem risky to some, but he already has more experience in the truck series than Kurt Busch did before making his Cup debut late in 2000.

Greg Biffle, who won last week's Cup race at Michigan, is another Roush driver who got his start in trucks, so Roush feels comfortable having Edwards make the jump.

"Every driver is different, in terms of his motivations and his frustrations and his maturity, as he steps into the big ring," Roush says. "We'll see. Carl doesn't have as much time as Matt Kenseth had, has more time than Kurt Busch had. When Kurt came, he'd won half the races he ever entered, or something. He'd only been in a handful races, 40 or 50 races, but he'd won an unbelievable number of races that he entered.

"Carl hasn't had that, nor has anybody else that I've had a chance to work with has had that. But Carl is ready to go. Another year in Busch would've been fine, but we'll spend a lot of time testing, a lot of time talking our way through things that could go wrong. He will spend a lot of time, I'm sure, reviewing tapes and discussing scenarios with Bob Osborne, the crew chief. It's going to be a new beginning. It's the re-birth of the 99 team."

That re-birth started with that 10th-place finish at Michigan, but now Edwards' focus is on Bristol. Winning the Truck race is the immediate goal, then he'll start worrying about his second Nextel Cup start. It will be tough surpassing his debut, for which he's quick to spread the credit.

"I'm very fortunate to be in the ride that I'm in. Jeff Burton and this team has done a lot of work this year to make these things this good," Edwards says. "I think it speaks for itself that [I was] the last Roush car in the field and [finished] 10th. These cars are great. It's great equipment. ... I've got two different teams at Roush Racing and both of them have great personnel."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.