The 2011 Sprint Cup Season reaches its ten-race mark this weekend with the Showtime Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway. The Track Too Tough To Tame is NASCAR's oldest speedway, pre-dated by only the .527-mile Martinsville Speedway. Darlington held it's first Southern 500 on September 4, 1950, with Johnny Mantz taking the first running of the Labor Day Classic.
After arguably the most entertaining start to a season in recent memory, there is plenty of reason to believe that a track that has produced it's share of memorable moments - including the mark for the closest finish in NASCAR Sprint Cup history that was tied three weeks ago in Talladega - will keep the ball rolling. One early season trend that has ended, or at least taken a hiatus, is the revolving door amongst point leaders.
Before this season, Carl Edwards had only stood atop the standings once in his career. That two-race stretch came in September 2008, after the first two events in that year's Chase for the Cup. He famously lost the lead to Jimmie Johnson after a valiant but futile last-turn effort to snag the win at his home track in Kansas and never regained it.
Beginning with his runner-up effort to Trevor Bayne in this year's Daytona 500, Edwards has led the standings at three different points this year. At Talladega, the driver of Roush-Fenway Racing's No. 99 Ford became the first Sprint Cup competitor since Denny Hamlin last fall at Phoenix to hold the lead entering an event and leave atop the standings. With his fifth-place effort at Richmond this past Saturday, Edwards set a personal best with his third consecutive race as the point leader. He now holds a nine-point edge on Johnson.
History, in effect, is repeating itself with the Missouri native in 2011.
In 2006, fresh off a four-win performance in 2005 - his first full season in the series - Edwards was held winless. He returned to victory lane on Father's Day 2007 at Michigan and added two more victories at Bristol and Dover before finishing ninth in the final standings. In 2008, Edwards had what had been his career year, recording nine wins and finishing second in the Chase to Johnson, who won his third-straight title at the time. In fact, Edwards scored more points than any other driver in 2008 and very likely could have dethroned Johnson if not for a controversial accident he triggered at Talladega and electrical problems at Charlotte the following week.
With three victories in the last four races of the '08 season and a brand new sponsorship deal with Aflac, many anticipated Edwards would dominate in 2009 for his first title. Instead, the No. 99 team proved all pundits wrong by going winless for the second time. And as the struggle continued early in 2010 - only one-top five finish in the first 17 races of the year - many of those same pundits who had predicted Edwards' ascent to glory a year earlier were wondering if, even at age 30, his day might have passed.
Beginning with a sixth-place finish at Daytona in July, Edwards reeled off a stretch of seven top-10s in eight races. Though his Chase hopes were doomed by a 34th-place finish at Fontana and sub-par efforts at Talladega and Texas, he ended the 2010 season on a roll by breaking through for his first win in nearly two years at Phoenix and dominating the season-finale at Homestead.
In the 11 races run dating back to that Phoenix victory, Edwards has three wins, seven top-fives, and nine top-10s. In 28 starts since that Daytona effort that jump-started his 2010 season, he has 19 top-10s. What's more, it has been more than a year since his No. 99 Ford was not running at the end of an event, a stretch of 37 races.
Just as his up-and-down performances on the track have sometimes baffled observers, Edwards has often been an enigma outside of his race car. Charming and charismatic, he is known as perhaps the best TV interview in all of racing. His already-wildly popular victory celebration - backflipping off the door of his car, which he adopted as a Camping World Truck Series rookie in 2003 after seeing USAC driver Tyler Walker do the same thing - got a second act last fall at Texas when he ran into the frontstretch grandstands to celebrate with fans after winning a Nationwide Series race at Texas.
He is also known for giving away the trophies he wins, most recently putting up the Sam Bass-designed guitar he won at Nashville on Easter weekend for auction to benefit the family of a recently deceased Roush-Fenway Racing crew member.
At the same time, Edwards has a reputation as one of NASCAR's more tempermental personalities. Highly-publicized feuds with Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and - most spectacularly - Brad Keselowski have earned him more than his share of fines and the chagrin of many race fans and even competitors who view him as bipolar or even fake.
Regardless of how one views Edwards outside his car, it is hard to deny that he is one of NASCAR's best talents. In the midst of what is perhaps the best extended stretch of his Cup career, it is also hard to deny that he is doing plenty to establish himself as the driver best situated to end Jimmie Johnson's run of dominance.
Carl Edwards' Darlington Stats:
Seven starts, two-top-fives, four top-10s, one DNF
Five finishes of 15th or better; 39th in 2006, 32nd in 2009
Best finish: Second, May 2008
37 laps led