The NASCAR world got introduced to Carl Edwards in a big way in March 2005.
In the span of 24 hours, March 19-20, Edwards claimed his first career wins in both the Cup and Xfinity Series.
The wins came in his 17th and and seventh career starts in each series during a race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The finish in the Cup race was true to form for Atlanta, which was a regular host of dramatic photo finishes in the early 2000s, long before its track surface was worn down into a driver favorite.
The final 44 laps saw Edwards, driving Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 99 Ford, dueling with future seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson controlled the lead for 39 laps in that stretch while Edwards led the remaining five, including the final one.
Using the high line, Edwards chased down Johnson before pouncing in Turn 4 as they came to the checkered flag.
Edwards and Johnson slammed doors as they came through the tri-oval, and Edwards pulled ahead at the final moment to win by .028 seconds.
With the crowd in a frenzy, Edwards capped it off by performing his trademark celebratory backflip from the top of his car.
It was an image fans would get to see 27 more times from Edwards in the Cup Series, including the following October as he completed a sweep of the Atlanta races. Edwards was the first driver to sweep the Cup and Xfinity races at Atlanta in one weekend.
“Let me tell you Jimmie Johnson is an amazing competitor,” Edwards told Fox in victory lane. “I’m telling you I’ve never driven that hard in my life.”
Jimmie Johnson never missed a lap in 26 Cup starts at Auto Club Speedway
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Although Jimmie Johnson is not a part of the championship discussion this weekend, his shadow towers over the Cup Series and could play a role in how this generation’s drivers are judged.
All four drivers are members of the Johnson generation, a fraternity of talented racers who had the misfortune of competing during Johnson’s reign. Hamlin and Busch have each raced their entire Cup career against Johnson. Harvick started running Cup full-time in 2001, a year before Johnson.
In that time, they’ve seen Johnson win a record five consecutive titles from 2006-10 to go with crowns in 2013 and ’16. He’s also collected 83 series victories, which ranks sixth on the all-time wins list.
“Definitely behind in wins and championships,” said Kyle Busch, who has 55 career Cup victories. “Why? The list goes on. It’s a pretty long one. So how many can you get now is about where it’s at. If I end with one (championship), that’s going to suck. If I can only get two, well, whatever.
“But three, four, five, I think five’s still achievable. But when you get to this final race in this moment, this championship format the way that it is, and five years in a row and you only come away with one, that gets pretty defeating.”
Johnson’s success won’t keep Harvick, Busch and Truex out of the NASCAR Hall of Fame after their career ends. One Cup championship has been a gateway to immortality. Mark Martin, who never won a Cup title, showed that there’s still room in the Hall of Fame. Should Hamlin never win a series crown, he likely is headed to the Hall with his 37 career victories, including a pair of Daytona 500 triumphs.
While Johnson’s career is measured against Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, how should those who raced against Johnson be viewed since they have fewer titles?
One consideration is to look at the Championship 4 appearances by each driver.
This is Harvick’s fifth title race appearance in six years. Busch is making his fifth consecutive championship race appearance. Truex is racing for a title for a third consecutive year.
“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” Hamlin said as a measuring stick for greatness. “I think one race, winner-take-all, anything can happen. I mean, if you have a mechanical failure on Lap 25, does that mean you’re not good enough? You made the final four.
“Making the final four is the culmination of your whole year. That is what deems your year a success. You made it to Homestead. Every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on this weekend.”
Said Truex: “I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win (a championship). I don’t know how to view that, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s final four appearances, straight‑up race wins. Championships are huge. I think it’s harder to win now than ever. Maybe one means more than one used to.”
2. Picking the right strategy
The strategy for Sunday’s race would seem easy for the Cup title contenders. Set the car up for a short run. Since the winner-take-all format in 2014, four of the five title races have had cautions in the last 15 laps, setting up a short run to the finish.
Last year, Joey Logano, whose car was set for the short run, passed Martin Truex Jr., whose car was set for a long run, with 12 laps left to win the race and the championship.
Kevin Harvick warns it’s not quite that simple with strategy, especially for a race that starts in the afternoon and ends at night under cooler track conditions.
“The only problem with short runs is you got to stay on the lead lap during the day,” Harvick said of when track conditions are warmer and more challenging to a car’s handling. “So you have to have some good balance and good adjustability built into your car.
“The short run has definitely been what’s won this race over the past few years, but having … the proper track position to take advantage of that short‑run speed is still necessary in the first half of the day. I don’t think these cars are going to race like what we have raced here before.
“I just don’t see the characteristics being exactly how they have been in the past for the amount of laps and things that have happened when your car is good and when your car goes to falling off and things like that. I think that those numbers are going to change. I don’t know exactly what that number will be as far as the crossover and falloff, but we’ll just have to see.”
3. End of the road
This weekend marks not only the end of the season but the end of a journey for Ross Chastain.
He’ll race for a Ganders Outdoor Truck Series championship tonight and run in Sunday’s Cup season finale. When the weekend ends, he will have competed in 77 races across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. That equals the number of races Kyle Busch ran in those series in 2006. Busch topped that total three times, including 2009 when he ran 86 races across those series.
“Yes, I’m tired,” said Chastain, who will compete in 23 Truck, 19 Xfinity and 35 Cup races this year. “The best part about it is that if I had a bad race, I had another one in a couple days, I would forget about it. … Now the bad part was when we had a good race, I didn’t have any time to celebrate.
“I don’t know what the future will hold on that. I don’t know if we’ll hit this many races for years to come. There’s a reason nobody does it.”
“I’m a big yes man,” said Chastain, who ran 74 races across all three series last season. “If any NASCAR team owner calls me, stops me at the track and says, ‘I want you to drive for me.’ I’m like, Of course. I’ve begged all these guys for years. Now that they say yes, I’m like, Of course, yes.”
Here’s a look at the most races run in a season in recent years (Note: Chastain’s stats are entering this weekend in Miami)
To end the season, Chastain will have a different type of motorhome for the weekend. He borrowed one from a friend and made the 3 1/2-hour drive from Ft. Myers, Florida to Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Plugged in, got air‑conditioning, water, everything,” Chastain said. “Yeah, you go in and you turn and there’s a door and there’s a bathroom. Most campers and buses, there’s a bedroom. There’s no bedroom. The bedroom is the living room. It’s small. Yeah, it’s cool.”
While the Cup driver and owner titles will be determined Sunday, the manufacturer’s crown was claimed last weekend at ISM Raceway by Toyota, which won the crown for the third time in the last four years.
The manufacturer championship is overlooked by many but not those at Toyota.
“That championship I wish garnered more than it does,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “You can make no mistake, for Toyota that’s an important championship. That’s one that resonates all the way back to Japan.
“The culture of racing internationally is a little different than with NASCAR, which is a driver-centric sport and always has been and will be, and that’s great. But everywhere else we race, it’s manufacturer-centric. It’s Toyota against Porsche, Audi or somebody.”
5. A new view
Derek Kneeland, who has been Kyle Larson’s spotter, will be Tyler Reddick’s spotter next year in Reddick’s rookie Cup season.
“What brought it all into perspective for me is when I was running part‑time at Ganassi (in 2017), I would go up and sit or stand next to Derek during practice, the races, really get an understanding of his vantage point, what he sees, how he communicates, how well of a job he did,” said Reddick, who races Christoper Bell, Cole Custer and Justin Allgaier for the Xfinity title Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
“That brought it all together for me when I was doing those races when I did have him, when I was in the racecar, it gave me a better understanding of how hard that job is and how good he was at it.
“It just came about that he wasn’t going to return (to work with Larson) next year. He was having a lot of fun working with me. Everyone at RCR really enjoyed how well of a job he did at Talladega to get our first win of the year, week in, week out.”
Friday 5: Cup drivers prepare to deal with anxiety, chaos at Roval
It is not hyperbole to say that the final lap of last year’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval might be among the most exciting laps in NASCAR’s history.
The leaders crashing within sight of the finish line. The car running third suddenly wins. A mangled car bouncing off the wall and puttering toward the checkered flag needing to pass a car stalled less than 100 yards from the finish line for 25th place to advance in the playoffs. And a three-way tie for the final two spots to advance to the next round.
The Roval was great for fans and stressful for competitors.
A year ago, Aric Almirola entered the Roval sixth in points. He had a 23-point lead on the first driver outside a transfer spot and six drivers between them. While not safe, it wasn’t an awful place to be.
And yet …
“Going into the Roval last year was really nerve-racking for me,” Almirola said. “It’s hard because you go into that position and you want so badly to advance to the next round and you feel like you’re holding on so tight. You almost race with don’t lose (mentality) than with that mentality of go get it, and that’s a hard way to race. I don’t like racing that way. I like racing on offense, but I don’t want to be on the other side of the cutline, either.
“I think I learned a lot last year. I had never really been in that experience before, going into the last cutoff race (of a round) of the playoffs. In 2014, when I was with Pettys, we blew up in the very first race and we were never really in it. So going (into) this year, I gained a lot of valuable experience of being in that position. I’ll feel better about it this year and just kind of knowing more and being more relaxed and having a better understanding of what to expect.”
Almirola survived a day last year that saw him involved in three incidents before he finished 19th, tying Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson for the final two playoffs spots. Almirola and Larson both advanced on the tiebreaker of better finishes in the opening round.
Bowman understands the pressure after experiencing it last year. He went into the Roval 11th in the standings a year ago, five points ahead of the first driver outside a playoff spot.
“That was a really stressful situation, a lot of anxiousness and nervousness,” said Bowman, who advanced to the second round last year. “Going into that race, I didn’t think that was going to be a good day for us, not being super confident in my road course skills. The day went well for us and it worked out. Just stressful.”
Last year’s Roval showed anything was possible.
“It’s a crapshoot,” Almirola said, “but it’s a crapshoot for everybody.”
Nothing replaces the excitement of nerves heading to a track you haven’t been to very much with so much on the line. Love that feeling, Let’s get it on!!
2. Don’t just watch the battle to avoid elimination
Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance in the opening two playoff races has allowed him to score 12 of 14 playoff points and that is likely creating concern among his competitors.
While playoff points may matter in the next round, they likely will be critical in the third round, which will determine the four drivers who will race for the championship Nov. 17 in Miami.
At least one of the four drivers in the championship race will advance from the third round via points. The difference could be playoff points.
That’s why each stage win is important and each victory is critical for the playoff points. And why the race at the front of the field could be as meaningful as the race for the final transfer spot Sunday.
Here are the drivers with the most playoff points this season:
Strategy on road courses often dictates giving up a chance for stage points to be in a better position to win.
Last year’s Roval race saw Truex, the points leader entering the event, not pit in the first stage when some other playoff drivers did, in hopes of winning the stage. He finished fourth in the stage.
Truex pitted in the middle of stage 2 to set himself for a final pit stop under caution with just under 40 laps to go in the final stage. It would have led to the winning strategy and five playoff points had Jimmie Johnson’s spinning car not hit Truex in the final chicane on the last lap.
3. A better trip the second time?
Even though teams tested at the Roval last summer and had three practices, some drivers struggled around the course a year ago.
Eleven drivers either spun or crashed during practice or qualifying last year. Bubba Wallace had the roughest time, spinning four different times and crashing into the tire barrier on the backstretch chicane (which was redesigned this summer).
Wallace was one of four drivers who went to backup cars for the race after incidents in practice or qualifying last year. The others were: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones.
Practice should be interesting Friday and Saturday.
In four of the previous five years of the elimination style playoff format, a driver ranked 10th or worse after the second playoff race went on to the championship race. It could be a sign for those drivers 10th or worse this year.
In 2014, Ryan Newman was 11th in points heading into the first elimination race. He made it to the title race and finished second. Also that year, Denny Hamlin was 13th in points heading into that elimination race. Hamlin also made it to Miami, finishing third in the points.
In 2015, Kyle Busch was 13th in points heading into the first elimination race. He went on to win the crown that year. Kevin Harvick was 15th in points heading into the elimination race — which he had to win to advance and did — and went on to make the title race, placing second in the championship. Jeff Gordon was 10th in the points going into that first elimination race and made it to the title event, placing third in the championship.
In 2016, Carl Edwards was 10th in points before the first round elimination race. He made it to Miami and finished fourth in the championship.
In 2017, Kevin Harvick was 10th in points before the last race of the opening round. He advanced to Miami and placed third in the championship.
Last year, Joey Logano was the lowest ranked driver after two playoff races among those who would compete in the championship race. Logano was fifth in the points at the time.
“There’s not a plan for him to stop that,” car owner Bob Leavine said this week. “I know he will be prudent in races he goes to because he understands the commitment that we’re going to ask of him in the Cup Series.
“It’s had to tell somebody that does that as a ‘hobby’ not to do it. We’re excited that he still wants to and excited to see him win there. I think it’ll be contagious with his confidence level.”
Said Bell: “I understand that my dirt racing is going to have to slow down a little bit. With the Cup Series, the schedule is a lot more, it’s a little bit bigger than what the Xfinity cars are and it’s going to be a huge learning curve moving into the Cup Series. …I’m going to be allowed some races, but I understand that the schedule won’t be near what it has been the last several years.”