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Caraviello: Martinsville miracle keeps Edwards in Chase lead

October 31, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: Martinsville miracle keeps Edwards in Chase lead

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Here it was, Carl Edwards' nightmare scenario, cast in stark relief against a vivid blue sky and the brilliant fall foliage of southwest Virginia. Short of parking in the garage with the hood up, he could not have designed a worse predicament. His No. 99 car was running so poorly it was in danger of falling two laps down. His old nemesis, Jimmie Johnson, was roaring toward the front. What entering the day seemed a relatively comfortable points cushion was being whittled away little by little and lap by lap, to the point where it threatened to disappear completely at Martinsville Speedway.

Mind you, everyone crowded into this old track Sunday afternoon had an inkling it could happen, given Edwards' pedestrian record at the half-mile facility and the somewhat tenuous nature of the Chase under the simplified points format implemented this year. But all the same, to see it unfold in real life was shocking. Here was Edwards, the best driver on the Sprint Cup circuit this season, lapped again and again and laboring like an also-ran while the contenders battled up front. At his absolute lowest, he was the last car a lap down, with five vehicles between him and the free pass position, and the head table at Las Vegas felt as far away as the moon.

"I was thinking, 'OK, the [St. Louis] Cardinals didn't give up the other night. That's a little motivation. The Missouri Tigers didn't give up the other night. That's motivation.' I became all right with the fact we were going to finish 20th or 25th."

--CARL EDWARDS

Crew chief Bob Osborne tried to keep his driver's spirits up. "We'll make something of this, bud," he said over the team radio.

"I'm not worried," Edwards responded. "I just don't understand how we're so slow. It doesn't make any sense to me."

It didn't make much sense to those watching, either, particularly given that Edwards hadn't finished any worse than 11th since August, and yet here he was running around like a start-and-parker in Chase money time. It became a matter of crisis control, of minimizing the damage, of getting every point they could get. They fell a lap down, they got the free pass, they fell a lap down again. They got buried by an epidemic of cautions that made gaining track position a struggle. The car wouldn't turn. Lug nuts were dropped during a pit stop. All the No. 99 team lacked was a plague of locusts descending upon the pit box, all this while Johnson made a desperate attempt to get back in it, and Edwards' teammate Matt Kenseth looked ready to seize the series lead by himself.

"We were so bad [with] probably 200 laps to go," said Edwards, a Missouri native. "I was thinking, 'OK, the [St. Louis] Cardinals didn't give up the other night. That's a little motivation. The Missouri Tigers didn't give up the other night. That's motivation.' I became all right with the fact we were going to finish 20th or 25th. I was already thinking about Texas, everything we were going to do."

Down to their last strike, the Cardinals won Game 6 to force a deciding matchup in the World Series, which they ultimately won. Down big to Texas A&M, the University of Missouri football team roared back to win in overtime. Edwards had already pulled off one such miracle comeback in this Chase, rallying from a lap down to finish fifth at Kansas, his home track. But Edwards is very, very good at Kansas. He's not particularly good at Martinsville, where his average finish entering Sunday was 16.9. In his media session Friday, he set the bar at a top-10 -- if he could walk away with that and the points lead, he'd be content heading into next weekend's event at Texas Motor Speedway, a track where he's won three times and could very well put his boot heel on the neck of this championship race.

Sunday afternoon, though, with a chill wind blowing through a speedway that's stood since 1947, Fort Worth looked like a mirage. "We'll keep on trucking and get a good finish out of this thing," Edwards said over the radio, but at the moment it felt like so much bravado. The car was at times so sluggish, Edwards let by drivers who were a lap behind him. With 100 laps to go, the No. 99 car was still a lap down. But Edwards and his team hung in there, they adjusted, they moved up in the free-pass pecking order when some other cars took the wave-around. And then with 92 laps remaining, they caught the break that may wind up saving a championship: Hermie Sadler hit the wall.

Caution. Free pass. It's morning in Columbia, Mo., again. Suddenly Edwards was 22nd, and granted a reprieve. Suddenly he was 19th. NASCAR at one point black-flagged Edwards for jumping a restart, but the driver argued that race control had ordered him to pull up past Jeff Burton in the restart line, and he and spotter Jason Hedlesky successfully won the case. "Whether or not there was a communication error, what was going on, I appreciate NASCAR looking at it and realizing they told me to do what they were black flagging me for," Edwards said. "Not very often they rescind the black flag like that."

It was an aggressive race, full of crashes and cautions and drivers hunting one another down, and over time all that silliness began to work in Edwards' favor by thinning out the field. Edwards moved up to 16th, and then to 13th after Kenseth slid into Kyle Busch while both were on the cusp of the top 10, forcing each of those championship contenders in for repairs. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman tangled. Brian Vickers spun to bring out a caution. Each time, the No. 99 inched up a little more. Edwards was nowhere near the finish, in which Tony Stewart overtook Johnson with three laps remaining. But when it all ended, Edwards had somehow come home in ninth.

"Unreal," was his reaction.

And understandably so, given the desperate straits he had been in just 100 laps earlier, given that he had once been on the verge of falling two laps down. As the sun set behind old Martinsville Speedway, Edwards had not only salvaged one of the more impressive top-10s of his career, but he had retained the Chase lead, now an eight-point edge over Stewart. He had successfully negated any serious gains threatened by Johnson, who finished second and instead of cleaving 20 points off what had been a 50-point deficit, whittled away just seven. Even better, Edwards is now past the most serious road block he had remaining in this Chase, with the steaks, cowboy hats, and friendlier confines of Texas welcoming him next.

It was the kind of run that teams use to build momentum toward a championship, finding success and inspiration from an unlikely place. Stewart was full of moxie after his victory, throwing down the challenge to the series leader. "Carl Edwards had better be real worried. That's all I've got to say," he said. "He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks." And yet, if Edwards is capable of pulling off a miracle at Martinsville, where he's been so average so many times, how potent might he be at a track where his record speaks for itself?

"We did not deserve to finish ninth," Edwards said, as amazed as anyone at the outcome. "Proud of my guys for sticking with it. Bob did a good job of keeping me calm. Now we go to Texas. I'm excited about Texas." Which ought to be frightening for everyone else.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.