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Relationship between Edwards, Kenseth has come long way

October 29, 2011, David Caraviello,

Relationship between Chase contenders Edwards, Kenseth has come long way

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- When exploring the dynamic between Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, the natural starting point is Martinsville Speedway, and not because of anything either driver has done on the track. It was here four years ago when the Roush Fenway teammates were involved in a bizarre altercation well after the race was over, one that began with Edwards pulling Kenseth away from a television interview, and concluded with the driver of the No. 99 car pulling a punch.

It was a startling episode, with Edwards at his most menacing in sunglasses and camouflage shorts, Kenseth flinching when his teammate reared back, and plenty of questions over what sparked it all. In the aftermath, sides were chosen, harsh words were exchanged, and fractions within one of NASCAR's top organization were exposed to the world. Edwards and Kenseth just didn't like each other that much, didn't want to deal with one another, and a chill set in between them.

* Video: Relive that incident between Edwards, Kenseth

Fast forward to another Martinsville weekend, this one with the Roush teammates once again in the spotlight, but for very different reasons. Edwards and Kenseth stand first and second in the Sprint Cup standings, respectively, entering Sunday's event, one of only four left remaining in the season. They're separated by just 14 points. And when Edwards needed information on how to better navigate a tricky short track on which he's always struggled, he turned to -- Kenseth, whose team shared the strategies it used to finish sixth here in the spring.

"We're leaning on Matt Kenseth's success here from the last race, and how well he ran," Edwards said. "Matt's good run in the spring is really what gives us the confidence we have here."

Edwards and Kenseth indeed have come a long way since 2007, and the near-punch that knocked their relationship off the rails. It's reached the point now where the Roush drivers seem completely comfortable racing one another for the championship, their disdain from four years ago having evolved into respect. Like all other drivers, they have the occasional disagreements. Like all teammates who have battled one another for a title, there is the balance that has to be struck between individual success and the greater good of the organization. But that earlier incident between them now feels like so long ago, Kenseth can even joke about it.

"First of all, I'm glad he just cocked it and didn't fire it, because that would have hurt. I saw the still photos of that the other day, and I might still be laying out there somewhere," Kenseth said, laughing.

"I think that our relationship has obviously changed a lot through the years. I think we have a much better understanding of each others' personality and how we look at things. I don't really know exactly what all triggered that back when it started. ... We just had some disagreements, I think, throughout that season. I guess we did anyway that led to that, but I think things have been good. We get along fine. He's certainly been a good teammate. He brings a lot to the table for the organization. The better the cars run, it helps all of us run better and elevates how good we can run, so everything has been fine."

The 2007 run-in at Martinsville appeared to be precipitated by some back-and-forth between the two drivers on a restart, in which Edwards slid into Kenseth trying to wedge his way into the low lane, and the No. 17 car responded with a bump. These days, though, neither of the participants say they remember the details of that incident. But they both know what happened in New Hampshire five weeks ago, when Edwards carried too much speed into a corner and spun -- of all people, Kenseth. This time, there were no fireworks. Edwards apologized immediately over the radio, Kenseth kept his car off the wall, and both drivers went on to salvage top-10 finishes key to their championship hopes.

* Video: Kenseth spins off Edwards' bumper at NHMS

"The deal is now, I understand Matt and appreciate him as a teammate and as a friend," Edwards said. "I feel like he's one of the guys I'm closest to in the garage area, and if it could come down to me and him racing for the championship, that would be an honor for me. I think in motorsports at any level you're going to have problems and issues and arguments and people that you're frustrated with, but I think now more than ever, we realize as drivers that we're all probably more alike than we are different, and we're all working for the same things. I think there's a really good camaraderie in the garage, and I'm proud to have Matt as a teammate."

And yet, there are few situations in racing more delicate than teammates racing one another for a title, given the open streams of information that need to flow between the programs, and the natural desire on both sides to claim the championship for their own. No organization has been through that more often than Hendrick Motorsports, which saw Jeff Gordon go down to the wire with Terry Labonte in 1996, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson battle it out in 2007, and Johnson, Mark Martin and Gordon sweep the top three positions in points in '09. To hear Johnson explain it, there are preparation days where everyone works together as a unit, and there are race days when everyone is out for themselves.

"I think Jeff and I, and even Mark Martin for that matter, have handled it as good as you possibly can, and kept the open notebook situation going, and [being] respectful on track and all those things that you would hope teammates would do. But it is a weird scenario, where you have the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, and what got those guys to where they are today is working together as a team," Johnson said.

"That is what worked for Jeff, Mark and I in the different years. There is a battle there, but fortunately all that stuff builds to a race, and then in the race you are your own independent team. And there still is enough that takes place in the course of the race that an individual team is responsible for, that we have found separation in that. Call a better race, make better adjustments, whatever it is to separate yourself from your teammate. So it is in your mind more [on] Friday, Saturday, but Sunday when you go racing, you are on your own path at that point, and things shake out."

The Roush teams seem to be following that same approach, as evidenced by the No. 99 team using information this weekend that the No. 17 outfit gathered at Martinsville in March. When the green flag drops Sunday, though, that spirit of cooperation will be superseded by competition.

"As much as we share and as good a relationship we have, we are competitors and we want to beat that 17 team just as bad as anyone else," Edwards said. "But we're not to the point in the season yet where we can really divide and go race one another. We still have to help one another, and we can still gain more by helping one another now and trying to succeed based on that help. So right now, we're working as a team even this weekend. If we can work together and help each other, really all the way up to the race, I think it's better for both of us."

This situation isn't completely foreign to Roush, which placed five teams in a then 10-man Chase in 2005, a season in which Edwards and Greg Biffle eventually tied for second in points. But in the Chase era, Roush teammates have yet to go down to the finish with the championship in the balance between them. Given traditional Roush strength at Texas and Homestead-Miami, two of the remaining three tracks on the schedule, there's a good chance that very situation could present itself should Edwards and Kenseth get through Martinsville unscathed. And how would the teammates react if they arrived in South Florida in the same situation they're in now?

"If it stays 1-2 through this stretch, there's going to be a big fight at Homestead," Kenseth said, in a joking reference to his spat with Edwards four years ago. "There's so much racing to do that I haven't even thought about that. Nothing has changed. All of the teams are working together the same. All of the drivers are getting along the same and working together and doing all of that, so I don't foresee anything ever happening to change that."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch highlights of Roush Fenway Racing in 2011: