Carl Edwards didn't look like a championship contender, the way he was hobbling around on crutches and grimacing in pain at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday evening before the start of the PepBoys Auto 500, the second-to-last race of the Sprint Cup regular season. All weekend Edwards had endured the gibes of rival drivers, who ribbed him for breaking two bones in his right foot while playing Frisbee earlier in the week in his hometown of Columbia, Mo. Edwards laughed off the digs, but his smile concealed his concern. The day before, Edwards sat on his pit wall and confessed that he was worried—despite having essentially locked up a spot in the 12-man Chase field—that the injury would doom his title hopes. "I usually slap the throttle hard, but now I can't because it's too painful," said Edwards, who has to wear a walking boot to protect his broken second and fourth metatarsal bones, which could take up to six months to heal. "I'm hoping that it makes me a better racer because I'll have to think harder about when to get on and off the gas, but who knows?"
On Sunday, Edwards started smoothly, easing on and off the throttle in a delicate dance. He ran in the top 10 for most of the first 80 laps until a piece of debris punctured his radiator, forcing him into the garage for an extended repair. He wound up finishing 37th, behind winner Kasey Kahne. The good news? He'd had little pain. Though he won't be doing one of his signature backflips anytime soon, his injury shouldn't be a liability this fall—the time when Edwards traditionally comes on.
Currently fifth in the standings, Edwards has yet to win this season after taking a series-high nine checkered flags in '08, but he's considered a dark horse to win the title by many in the garage. Why? Two main reasons:
1) The schedule.
Edwards, 30, is arguably the series' top driver on ovals that are 1.5 to two miles long. Of his 16 Cup wins, 14 have come on tracks of that length. He grew up racing on a dirt oval near Columbia called Holtz Summit that, he says, taught him the same handling skills required on NASCAR's intermediate tracks. Why is this significant? Because five of the 10 Chase races will take place on 1.5- to two-mile ovals.
2) The team.
Edwards's Roush-Fenway Racing is riding a 23-race winless streak, but owner Jack Roush isn't fretting. "We're viewing the first 26 races more like test sessions for the final 10," Roush says. "The idea is to peak at the start of the Chase." It's happened before: In '08 Roush-Fenway's Greg Biffle, winless in the regular season, took the first two playoff races.
Can Edwards duplicate Biffle's fast Chase start of a year ago? He'll put his best foot forward.
Now on SI.com
Cup analysis from Lars Anderson and Mark Beech's Racing Fan at SI.com/bonus
After storming past Kevin Harvick on a late-race restart in Atlanta, Kasey Kahne got his second win of 2009. The victory moved Kahne (below) from 11th in the standings to sixth and, with one race left in the regular season, solidified his spot in the 12-man Chase field. Still, with only 113 points separating Kahne from 14th-place Kyle Busch (and a maximum point swing of 161 in a single race), nothing will be certain until after Saturday's race at Richmond. The best battle will be among Matt Kenseth (currently 12th), Brian Vickers (13th) and Busch as they vie for the final spot in the 10-race playoff. The pick here is Vickers. He won the pole at Richmond earlier this year and has finished seventh or better in six of his last eight starts.
CRUTCH PERFORMER Though winless in '09, Edwards is fifth in points and a favorite on the Chase's intermediate tracks.
MARVIN GENTRY/US PRESSWIRE