HAMPTON, Ga. — Carl Edwards sounded downright giddy after a practice session Friday, not at all like someone who’s in danger of missing out on a chance to race for his first Cup title.
NASCAR’s only stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway couldn’t have come at a better time for him.
Heck, if the ceiling had been a little higher in the infield media center, Edwards might’ve done one of his patented backflips.
“We could not be at a better place,” he said. “I love this place.”
Last year’s Sprint Cup runner-up is struggling just to make the Chase for the championship, coming into Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500 ranked 12th in the point standings. The top 10 get in, plus two wild cards based on season victories, and Edwards has yet to win this season.
So, his mission his clear: win in Atlanta or next week in Richmond.
If not, he’ll be spending the final 10 races as an outsider in the title race, with no way to make up for the galling Cup loss to Tony Stewart in the finale last season.
“We recognize the position we’re in,” Edwards said. “We don’t like it. The only thing we can do is go out and race like we’ve got nothing to lose because, in a way, we don’t.”
This 1.54-mile tri-oval is one of Edwards’ most successful tracks. His first Cup victory came at Atlanta in 2005. Overall, he has three wins at the high-banked speedway, along with seven other top-10 finishes.
Many NASCAR tracks that have been repaved in recent years, leaving a slicker surface that reduces tire wear but cuts down on the chances to really go racing. No so in Atlanta, where the 15-year-old surface is gritty and challenging. There are numerous passing grooves, but drivers must also concern themselves with how much grip they’re losing with each lap.
Edwards is thrilled about the possibilities.
“We need a place where I can let the car hang out, where the car goes faster on fresh tires than on old tires,” he said. “This track is one where you can drive the car sideways, take some chances. You can burn the tires off for three laps, make it look good, and put yourself in position to do something spectacular. It’s not like fresh pavement, where everyone is struck to one groove.’ ‘
Edwards keeps saying again and again that last year’s disappointment didn’t carry over to this season, but it sure looks like there was some sort of hangover. How could there not be?
He drove more consistently than anyone in 2011 and went into the final race at Homestead with a slender lead in the points. But Stewart pulled out a dramatic win, with Edwards right on his bumper, and that was good enough to give Smoke the championship.
The two drivers wound up tied in the standings, but Stewart won the Cup because he had more victories.
“I don’t wake up every morning going, ‘Man, I can’t believe we didn’t win that championship,”’ Edwards insisted, blaming his perilous position on a combination of bad luck and some admittedly poor performances.
Even so, he remains hopeful of getting into the Chase.
“I feel I can accept whatever happens, but I’m still pretty confident we’re going to make it,” Edwards said. “I’ve not started to think how I will feel if we don’t make it. I feel like we’ll win this week. I feel like we’ll win next week. We’re close enough on the points that we can do it. If we don’t, I know why. There’s a bunch of points out there this season we let go. That’s about as deep as I’ve thought about it. I just hope it works out.”
He’s not the only one.
Kyle Busch, who many consider the most gifted driver on the circuit, also is on the bubble. He’s 13th in the standings but positioned to pick up the second wild card because he won at Richmond in the spring.
“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to go out there and contend for the championship if given the opportunity to make the Chase,” Busch said. “We’ve just got to do everything the right way, the way we know how to do it. From there, we could go into the final 10 weeks and bust our butts to put together 10 great weeks. There’s no reason why we can’t. I don’t see the competi tion as being the reason why we’re in the 13th position. It’s just due to dumb circumstances.”
Unlike Edwards, Busch has apparently spent more time thinking about what it would mean to miss the Chase.
Needless to say, it doesn’t sound too enticing.
“You’re just another race car out there running around in circles the rest in season,” Busch said. “I don’t want to be in that position. I want to race for a championship. I want to be making circles for a reason. I want to be making circles for a championship.”
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is one of four drivers who’ve already clinched a spot in the Chase.
He can sympathize with those who are struggling to get in — especially Edwards.
“I know how talented Carl is and how strong he is and how close he is,” Johnson said. “It was going to be a bummer last year for whoever lost. I thought Carl handled it about as well as anyone ever could in those circumstances.”
Edwards would love nothing more than to get a chance at a do-over.
He’s got two races to make it happen.