Carl Edwards won't win rookie of the year. The Roush Racing stud competed too many times last season to be eligible.
Yet, the 26-year-old racer in his first full season isn't willing to go the year without fighting for some kind of trophy. Just so happens he has his eye on the big one.
With his second victory in a row, his fourth of the year, Edwards has pulled to within 77 points of points leader Tony Stewart and sits within striking distance of the title in third place with two races to go. The Chase for the Nextel Cup, once thought to be a two-driver race between Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, has new blood -- in more ways than one.
"This whole deal is a dream come true. This is not supposed to happen," Edwards said. "… Five years ago, I'd never raced on a pavement racetrack and people were laughing at me for passing out business cards, so this is not the biggest challenge of my life, by any means, and we're just going to go out and treat it that way. We're going to try and win these races."
Although the words success, surprise or promising might come to mind, Edwards describes his entire year thusly: fun.
After Jeff Burton left Roush Racing last season, team owner Jack Roush immediately tabbed Edwards to take over as driver of the No. 99 Ford. Edwards competed in the final races of 2004 as prep work for this year. Roush said he hoped last year's experience would put his young driver, and young team, in position to understand better what needed to be done to find improvement in 2005. Roush said he was certain it would help Edwards and Co. contend in 2006.
Edwards had different plans. He said he has refused to take things too seriously, but he also has refused to count any possibility out. He has used every Nextel Cup race in which he has competed as an opportunity to grow better, and that's why he's closer than anyone ever expected to winning the coveted Cup trophy.
"I can approach it a couple of different ways," said Edwards, who has drawn, of all things, suspicion for his ability to stay cool throughout the year and enjoy himself in the face of pressure. "I can be extremely focused and stressed out and think of it as a have-to-do-this-a-certain-way manner, or I can just go and prepare the best I can and, when I'm done preparing, just decide it's time to go race and go have a good time and see how it goes.
"And both ways seem to work pretty well. It's just that at the end of the day, having a good time with it and not really running yourself into the ground from a stress standpoint, it seems to be the best way for me."
It has led to the best results on the racetrack. The best results possible.
The kamikaze, Victory-Lane-or-bust driver of the past has blossomed into a more calculating and patient competitor.
"A lot of what's changed for Carl, I believe, is his ability to manage the race car and manage the race itself," said crew chief Bob Osborne, a rookie in his own profession. "From early on in the season and late last year when he first started running the Cup cars, he had that win-at-all-costs mentality, and a lot of times he would either run the tires off the car or put the car in a bad position and cause some sort of damage.
"He's come an extremely long way with that. I know a lot of this race [Texas], I'm sure the car didn't look that great at the beginning of the run, but I know that he was managing the car and taking it easy at that time -- even though he doesn't come over the radio and say that when he does it. That has been a huge improvement for him this season."
Could it key another this season? In truth, with Stewart and Johnson separated by 38 points, the real battle appears to be between those two Chevy pilots. But from what we've seen of Edwards this year, and particularly in this Chase, you'd be crazy to count him out.
"We probably won't beat Tony Stewart," Edwards said. "Probability would say it probably won't happen. The guy knows how to win championships and he's an unbelievable race-car driver and they've got a great team, but that's not going to stop us from giving 100 percent. And it would be just so much fun to do, I just couldn't describe it."
Whether that best-case scenario happens or not, Edwards is just grateful for the ride this season has been. No matter what happens this week in Phoenix and the next week in Homestead, Fla., Edwards knows he won't win rookie of the year -- ironic for a kid who's having one of the greatest runs for a driver in his first full year. But although those 13 races last season render him ineligible for the rookie trophy he deserves, that might end up being the tradeoff for claiming an even bigger prize.
"I used to have this illusion that if I didn't win every race, that that was failure -- that a race was a failure if we didn't win," Edwards said. "That is the wrong way to approach racing. I have come to realize as long as I do my job the best I can do it and I don't make mistakes, that is a great day. That's all you can do."
While Edwards has been on a tear, and indeed won Sunday afternoon's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway as well as the event at Atlanta Motor Speedway the weekend before, Stewart has lost just 72 points to Edwards the past two weeks.
In the grand scheme of things, that makes Stewart the big winner. Stewart's ability to finish at the top of the running order is uncanny. And it's what has him in control of the 2005 Nextel Cup trophy. Two more top-fives in a season in which he already has posted 16 of them would pretty much seal the deal.
"The guys that we're racing in the Chase are the same guys we were racing for the win today," Stewart said. "So, you know, it's not even really worth worrying about the points. It's about worrying [about] what you need to do to win the race the next couple of weeks."
He already has planted seeds of doubt in the minds of his competitors.
Says Roush: "We don't have a realistic prospect of beating [Stewart] or [Johnson] with any of our cars, Carl included, unless somebody else has trouble. I expect Tony and Jimmie to run second, third or fourth -- certainly a top-five -- for the next two races if they don't break a part or ... get caught up in somebody else's wreck."
Feeling the heat
Ryan Newman was four points out of first just a few weeks ago. Now, he's in the midst of a downward spiral he can't seem to correct.
The driver of the No. 12 Dodge has fallen from second to seventh in the standings, a daunting 174 points out. His latest run was riddled with minor mechanical issues, race-day car damage and just plain mediocrity. He finished 25th, making it three times in the last five that he has come in worse than 20th.
"It was unfortunate, but we were the underdogs coming in," Newman said. "I don't think we're mathematically out of it, but things aren't looking good. We're looking forward to Phoenix."
Still on course
Johnson's fifth-place run Sunday did him no significant harm. He has hovered within contention for several weeks now, so the top-fives are not the problem. Now, it's just a matter of running out of time.
With Stewart running just as consistently as Johnson and his No. 48 Chevy team, it has been difficult for the Hendrick Motorsports driver to catch up. Thirty-eight points is a surmountable distance with two races to go, however, and Johnson hasn't given up hope.
"The nice thing is that it's still in our control," he said. "We can win the championship on racing and not have to count on bad luck on anybody's behalf. It looks like we've also stretched out a little cushion over a couple of guys and don't have to worry about losing anything there. Tony is going to run strong, and it's going to be five points here or there. That's just kind of the way it is."
Hardly a peep
Greg Biffle has battled throughout the year, predominantly carrying through a high level of consistency. But it's the slips here and there that have cost him. It's those rare finishes of 20th or worse that have kept him from contending with Stewart and Johnson.
That's what happened Sunday. A 20th-place effort, his second such finish in three events, dropped him one spot to fourth. More important, it dropped him another 47 points behind the leader.
Still, he did enough to stay mathematically in it, leaving him to hope -- like some fellow Roush racers -- that Stewart and Johnson have severe trouble.
"It was pretty clear we would've had a top-five tonight, maybe a top-10," Biffle lamented the price of his car trouble. "… We're in this position now and we just have to do whatever we can."
Mark Martin, Kenseth and Biffle are still lurking. The trio are within 135 points of the leader, praying for some help from him and hoping they can come through with some high finishes. Martin and Kenseth have been coming through consistently in that regard -- with Martin posting a second- and a third-place finish his last two times out.
The fact that the remaining two tracks are a 1-miler that drives like a 1.5-mile track and a typical 1.5-mile track bodes well for Roush's group, which has mastered the intermediate tracks this season.
"Jack has always had a real strong program, and our cars seem to run good at these mile-and-a-half tracks," Kenseth said. "Right now, with Doug Yates and them guys doing engines, we have engines second to none and we have really, really good equipment. We've got everything we need to go win races, so we really don't have an excuse not to be up front or win because right now Jack's giving us the best stuff available."
"I know there's only two races left," Martin added. "We're running good, and that's all I care about. And it would take a miracle for us to win the championship, but we're digging. We're going down with a fight."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.