NASCAR: Edwards applies pressure on Johnson

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 4, 2008

By Jim Peltz
Los Angeles Times
FORT WORTH, Texas ó Carl Edwards walked into the post-race interview room wearing a black cowboy hat, a prop awarded by the folks at Texas Motor Speedway for winning Sunday’s NASCAR Dickies 500.
The black hat might have been better suited to the cocky Kyle Busch. But it’s Edwards who has been on his horse lately, winning the last two races and closing on Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Edwards, a 29-year-old native of Columbia, Mo., said he spent part of last week hunting in the Missouri woods to get his mind off racing, and plans to again this week.
“I call it hunting, but it’s mostly just watching because I’m terrible,” Edwards said. “I’ll be in the woods in my tree stand thinking about anything but Jimmie Johnson.”
If that’s possible, because Edwards is hunting down Johnson for NASCAR’s championship.
Only a week ago, Johnson’s lead, then 183 points over Edwards, was thought invincible as Johnson tries to become only the second NASCAR driver, with Cale Yarborough, to win three consecutive Cup titles.
And although Edwards’ win Sunday on a dramatic fuel-mileage call by his crew chief, Bob Osborne, knocked 77 points off that lead, to 106, Johnson remains in a strong position with only two races left, at Phoenix on Sunday and at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) on Nov. 16.
Shortly after the race ended, NASCAR issued a statement that it would be “difficult” for Johnson to clinch the title at Phoenix. That drew a few snickers from reporters who figured it was a NASCAR effort to maintain interest in the Homestead-Miami finale.But it won’t be easy either. Johnson could clinch at Phoenix if he runs well and Edwards stumbles badly. (Johnson would have to gain at least 90 points on Edwards in the desert to secure the title.)
But a frustrated Johnson, who finished 15th at Texas because of his poorly handling Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, did not act like a driver confident of clinching anything.
“In racing, anything can happen and usually does,” he said. “I have known all along we were going to have to fight every week for this thing.”
Edwards’ No. 99 Ford, prepared by Roush Fenway Racing, was the dominant car at Texas. But because of caution periods, he needed a fuel gamble to climb from seventh and inherit the lead.
He did so by going the final 69 laps of the 334-lap race without refueling again, a stretch that baffled even team co-owner Jack Roush, whose other drivers needed to refuel 12 laps earlier.
“I didn’t understand why, and I still don’t understand why” Edwards pulled it off, Roush said, although he suggested it might have been how Edwards drove his car compared with his teammates rather than the car itself.
Edwards now has eight wins, tying him for the series lead with Busch, and lots of momentum. Yet Edwards remains a long shot, in no small part because Johnson has won the last two races on the 1-mile Phoenix track.
Still, Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, who finished second to Edwards at Texas, said Friday that although he was impressed with Johnson’s record this season, “I’ve felt all year that it would be Carl’s year.”
There are still two races to see if Gordon, who has four Cup championships himself, turns out to be prescient.