Racing insider: Edwards battles back

Ralph N. Paulk
| Sunday, March 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Carl Edwards would have cried if he hadn't been laughing at the twisted fate that left him looking like a demolition man rather than a Sprint Cup driver during Speed Weeks at Daytona International Speedway.

Five times he crashed his No. 99 Ford Fusion.

I couldn't believe it. He couldn't, either.

Edwards, who prides himself on an innate ability to smartly serpentine through traffic, kept getting caught up in every other crash. The 99 took a beating, leaving a usually confident driver second-guessing even a simple left-hand turn.

Yet, a resilient Edwards bounced off the ropes and came out swinging in Phoenix last weekend. He promised his Roush-Fenway Racing crew had more fight than it did in the season-opening Daytona 500, a poor effort that saddled him with a 70-race winless streak.

Finally, Edwards ripped the monkey off his back at Phoenix International Raceway last Sunday. He won for the first time in 71 races, in part, because Jimmie Johnson didn't pack a big enough punch to snatch away the checkered flag.

It was a huge victory for Edwards considering he seemingly had conceded the spotlight to teammates Greg Biffle and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He needed the spotlight in Victory Lane both to stop the bleeding and to remind everyone that he isn't too old to execute his signature victory back flip.

“For us, it was a great win for a number of reasons,” Edwards said during a conference call Wednesday. “Not winning a race for 70 races is really frustrating. Though it was a 70-race drought, we did have an awesome 2011 season with nine second-place finishes or something. So it wasn't 70 races of frustration.”

But 2012 was a year of utter frustration. It resembled Speed Weeks — a crash-and-burn season that left him looking like an also-ran driving aimlessly in search of a remedy.

“It felt good just to get that turned around and have a real solid day,” Edwards said. “I believe the ingredients we have right now ... I think we have a lot of great things to look forward to, but a win right off the bat is really, really good for us.”

Edwards can credit his quick turnaround to crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Fennig quickly changed the team's psyche with a pep talk after the Daytona debacle. More important, he equipped Edwards with a fast car that enabled Edwards to lead the most laps.

Fennig, who had been Matt Kenseth's crew chief in the No. 17 Ford, was assigned Edwards prior to last season's Chase finale at Homestead-Miami. He met with Edwards to devise an offseason plan that would put him back in Chase contention.

So neither was totally surprised at a dominating performance by a team that staggered into the garage in Daytona with far more questions than answers. It hardly seemed prepared to take on the big boys piloting cars for Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Jimmy specifically told me before the season started that he wants me to make sure that I understand the changes they have planned for practice ... so we don't miss something,” Edwards said. “I thought that was pretty cool for him to just lay it out there. This is exactly what I want. I think that leadership and knowing what he wants is something that's going pay off a lot.”

NRA to sponsor race

Clearly, NASCAR can contradict itself without fear of losing much of its fan base.

On one hand, Michael Waltrip honored the 26 victims of Newtown, Conn., by placing that number on his race car for the Daytona 500. On the other hand, NASCAR signed the NRA as the primary sponsor of next month's race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Of course, none of this surprises me, partly because many of NASCAR's owners and drivers are proud card-toting members of the NRA — including owner Richard Childress, who sits on the NRA's board of directors.

Hamlin defies gag order

Denny Hamlin had the audacity to criticize the Gen-6 after last Sunday's race in Phoenix. As a result, he was hit with a $25,000 fine by NASCAR, which, earlier this year, warned drivers to muzzle themselves if they couldn't resist the temptation to suggest the new car isn't worth all the hype.

“I'll be honest; I'm not going to say anything for the rest of the year as long as it relates to competition,” said Hamlin, who on Thursday said he refuses to pay the fine. “The bad part is that I feel like I've been a pretty good spokesman for them (NASCAR) and being positive when things aren't always positive. They just lost one small spokesman today — that's all.”

NASCAR already has the power to hand out punishment as it sees fit. It's rare that anyone wins an appeal, and Hamlin — or Joe Gibbs — apparently will have to pay the price for a rare moment of candor.

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