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For Edwards, the championship race begins now

July 06, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Carl Edwards has run well at times this season, but he knows strong finishes are mandatory to make the Chase. (Autostock)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The kickoff to the Chase for this season's Sprint Cup title is still nine weeks away. But for Carl Edwards, the championship race starts now.

That's the way last season's runner-up said his team has to approach things if it hopes to make another run at the crown in NASCAR's premier division. At 34 points out of the 10th and final guaranteed playoff berth, and needing a victory to enhance his wild-card hopes, the Roush Fenway driver knows he needs a serious push to avoid being left out when the 12-man championship field is determined on the second Saturday night in September.

"I thought we needed to do that. I think we needed to be really honest with one another, and I was glad it went the way it went."

--CARL EDWARDS

And it needs to begin soon, given that Edwards -- who lost a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart for last year's championship -- is coming off consecutive finishes in the 20s that have made his predicament that much more precarious. Last Saturday night at Kentucky, some of that frustration was vented after a dispute with crew chief Bob Osborne over when to pit for fuel led to a 20th-place result for a car that had run as high as third. The No. 99 team held what Edwards called a "hastily-organized meeting" after the event in which one message was stressed.

No room for error. At least, not anymore.

"Basically what it boils down to is this -- our luck has been so bad this year that we can't make any other mistakes," Edwards said Thursday. "We have to go forward assuming that the things that could go wrong are going to go wrong, so we can go out and minimize the mistakes around the things we can control. ... We have to go the extra mile to make sure all of our bases are covered, because there's just no room for any more error over the next nine races. We have to be on it. This to us is almost as if we're going to race for the championship the next nine races. We've got to think that way and remember and respect the fact that we're not in the Chase right now. We're outside of it. We've got to go get it."

Indeed, Edwards' points position belies the fact that he's buried in the wild-card standings, trailing four other drivers -- Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano -- who have race victories that give them a leg up on one of those two spots. Edwards has gone 50 races since his last Sprint Cup victory, which came at Las Vegas in March of 2011. If he doesn't win, he has to make up the 34 points that separate him from 10th-place Brad Keselowski.

"I think that's realistic. That window is closing, though," he said. "If we don't make up some ground in the next three or four weeks, it becomes a different story. The best way we can do that is to obviously go win races, but I think in the next nine races we could make up 50 or 60 points, but that would be the best case. We know how to do that. We've had runs like that where we just knocked off five or six or eight top-fives in a row, and we can do it. But we've got to step it up now."

Although he's never won at Daytona, Edwards has a strong track record on the 2.5-mile facility that includes finishes of ninth or better in seven of his past 10 starts here. But he's far from the only driver that comes to Daytona needing to make something happen. Jeff Gordon has apparently shaken off his bad luck and recorded three consecutive results of sixth of better, but those haven't been enough to elevate him higher than 18th in the standings. One victory, though, and everything changes -- and suddenly the four-time champion is just 10 points behind Kahne for the second wild-card spot.

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No wonder Gordon was feeling optimistic Thursday.

"I'm actually confident in it," he said. "I feel like, especially these last three weeks, we are finally actually getting some things to go our way. ... We have fast race cars, and we have some momentum on our side and building on that, and we are coming up to some tracks that I think are really good tracks for us. We are not that far away when you think of the points. I think we are what like 10 points out of 14th, and that is with the guys with one win. Obviously, things change every week. This weekend anybody could win this race. One of those guys wins another race, it makes it that much more challenging. We are one win away and about 10 points out right now. That is something that you can get excited about. The way we have run really gets me excited about it."

For Edwards, the current situation can bring frustration -- especially after outcomes like last weekend, which led him to vent in a television interview. Afterward, he made his displeasure known to everyone from team engineers to owner Jack Roush. "I thought we needed to do that," he said. "I think we needed to be really honest with one another, and I was glad it went the way it went."

Now focus turns to Daytona, a track where Edwards finished as runner-up in the Daytona 500 last year, and where he's run well enough to win. The No. 99 team needs that victory, but Osborne said his group won't sacrifice everything to pursue it.

"We want to win as many as we can, that's for sure, but we can't give it away, either," the crew chief said. "We are going to go race as hard as we can race every weekend, and we're going to make the best decisions we can make to get us to Victory Lane if the opportunity is there, and get the most points at the end of the race. We're not going to go crazy here. It's either going to work our way, or it's not. We're going to do the very best we can every weekend, and we expect that to be good enough."