Minutes after Carl Edwards finished a desultory 36th at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last week, he approached Joe Gibbs Racing team owner Joe Gibbs.
“Hey,” Edwards said to his boss, “I’ve got to win next week.”
Edwards was steeled after that poor finish at Martinsville had essentially left him with no other option for Sunday’s Texas AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
He was mired in eighth place in the eight-driver Chase after one race of the three-race semifinals. Only four advance to the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Martinsville-winner Jimmie Johnson had just grabbed one spot.
So Edwards and his No. 19 Toyota team headed to Texas and, on a day when rain both delayed and shortened the race, he came away with that victory he told Gibbs he so badly wanted.
Really starting right now, in Victory Lane, I started talking about Homestead already.
“I feel like this is what we needed to do,” Edwards said late Sunday. “We were able to do that. There’s a lot of pride in that. This sport is so tough. To be able to run like we did tonight, for the pit crew to perform the way they did, it’s really great. I think it’s a testament to the team that coach Gibbs has put together.”
So Edwards will join six-time champion Johnson and two others in the final four Nov. 20 at Homestead. They could be Joey Logano, who finished second at Texas, or Kyle Busch, who was fifth – who have the highest points totals of this round’s non-winners. Or Kevin Harvick, who goes to next week’s race at Phoenix knowing he has been virtually unbeatable there in recent seasons.
Whoever it is – and that includes Johnson – they will have to beat an already-hyped Edwards in the championship round.
“Man, I will not be relaxed,” said Edwards, who finished second in the title Chase to Tony Stewart in 2011. “This is the part that I love. I mean, next week, we want to go win the race (at Phoenix). Really starting right now, in Victory Lane, I started talking about Homestead already.
“Everything we do now will be geared to making sure that at that Homestead weekend, we do it perfectly. So, yeah, I relish the opportunity to go focus for the next 14 days on trying to give a championship effort.”
Edwards is one of four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers still in contention to win the Chase.
It took quite a while for Edwards’ victory to unfold Sunday. A rain shower hit the Texas track just minutes before the green flag was scheduled to wave at 2:16 p.m. It took six hours for the track to dry – not the first time this season something like that has happened at Texas. The NASCAR race in the spring was also held up by rain and an IndyCar race in June was postponed until August after persistent rain prevented the track from drying in a timely fashion.
When Sunday’s race finally began, Logano (who led a race-high 178 laps) and Martin Truex Jr. (who was eliminated from the Chase after the second round) appeared to have the strongest cars.
But Edwards beat then-leader Truex out of the pits during a caution on Lap 258 of the scheduled 334-lap race. As rain moved into the area again, Edwards joked on his radio that he didn’t think it was safe for the race to continue.
36 Laps led by Edwards at Texas.
It wasn’t long before the rain came again and Edwards’ best hopes were realized. The race was called on Lap 293.
“That was stressful,” said Dave Rogers, Edwards’ crew chief. “The racing and the pit stops, the adjustments, all that. But the rain was a challenge because we could see the small cell coming. We knew the track was going to get wet, but we didn’t know if we were going to lose the track, if NASCAR would try to throw it green again. (It was) somewhat of a gamble. That was a stressful but exciting time.”
It will only get more exciting over the next several days for Edwards, Rogers, Gibbs and everybody else at JGR. Three other JGR drivers – Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth – also remain in contention to advance.
“I don’t think there’s a downside,” said Gibbs. “Next week will be super competitive. We’re going up against, besides our team, great competitors, Harvick, Joey. This is going to be a real battle.
“That’s one of the things you love about pro sports, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Like (Sunday), I think everybody would have said Carl was a long shot to be able to get in and do this. It’s just a great effort. Those are the great things we love about our sport.”
Edwards usually punctuates his victories with a back-flip off his car. He sensibly elected not to do that on a wet, chilly Sunday night.
“I’ll do that again at Homestead,” he said.