NASCAR Season Preview: Carl Edwards

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#99 Fastenal/Aflac/Subway/Best Buy/Kellogg’s/Cheez-It/UPS Ford, Roush Fenway Racing

Born: August 15, 1979

Home: Columbia, Missouri

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Making the Chase was no problem for Edwards, who spent a total of four races ranked below third in points and was never out of Chase contention in points, even in the early stages of the season where points are shuffled around. Then, when he got there, he had the best Chase average in history, an eye-popping 4.9, partially buoyed by three consecutive second place finishes to finish the year. When all was said and done, he was tied for the points lead with Tony Stewart, the only time that has ever happened in Sprint Cup history.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: And yet it wasn’t enough. Because Stewart won five races in the Chase and Edwards only won one all season, he took the tiebreaker. Edwards won the pole and led the most laps in the season finale at Homestead, but if Stewart won the race, it wouldn’t matter. That’s exactly what happened. “That’s all I had,” Edwards lamented after the race.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Anybody who hates the trend of former full-time sponsors combining to back one team and subsequent related collapse of the racing die-cast market should probably view this team as Public Enemy Number One. After Roush Fenway Racing signed Aflac to a $26 million (annually!) contract to sponsor Edwards, the company had to auction off plenty of races to other companies. That wasn’t a difficult sell, as Edwards is a top-flight driver with a generally well-received personality, but many of those who are now footing the bill used to pour much more money into the sport. This year, the team will add UPS (which shifts its money from Edwards’ former teammate David Ragan) and Best Buy (which backed A.J. Allmendinger full-time at Richard Petty Motorsports last year).

But all the money in the world may not be enough to buck the Edwards trend of following up a good season with a relative stinker. After Edwards won nine races and scored 27 top 10s in 2008 and still lost the championship, he followed it up with a winless 2009 and 11th place points finish. Edwards took a page out of teammate Matt Kenseth’s book last season by winning only one race but posting an average finish that was actually better than in 2008; he still lost the title to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker. He’s still never missed the Chase as a a full-time driver, and don’t expect that to start now, but as Denny Hamlin showed last year (and Edwards showed in 2009), it’s hard to keep performing at a high level after losing the Chase in such a heartbreaking fashion. Winning the pole for the Daytona 500 will help, but can he stay on top all season?

- Chris Leone

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