As Carl Edwards walked briskly through the infield of Charlotte Motor Speedway on a warm and windy Thursday evening before qualifying for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, he stopped to sign autographs. He posed for a photo. Upon reaching his motor home and learning that he had an hour before he needed to be on the track, Edwards, who has played guitar on stage with the Zac Brown Band, said, "I guess I'll go work on that new song."
Edwards's team owner, Jack Roush, has called his driver "a rock star"—but more for his peripatetic lifestyle than for his musical chops. "There's a lot of excitement that goes with Carl," says Roush.
Go being the operative term. That night Edwards would qualify third, then dash to Concord Regional Airport to pick up the Cessna Citation he would pilot home to Columbia, Mo. He'd spend Friday at the park with his wife, Kate, and their children, Anne and Michael, before flying back to Charlotte in time to finish second in last Saturday's Nationwide Series race. On Sunday, he rounded out the weekend by leading 61 laps in the Coca-Cola 600 before fading to 16th behind winner Kevin Harvick after ill-timed pit stops cost him track position.
Edwards may not have gotten a chance to wow the crowd with one of his signature backflips Sunday night, but he widened his lead in the Sprint Cup standings to 36 points over second-place Harvick. Through 12 races NASCAR's most energetic driver is also the most consistent in the Cup Series (with nine top 10s, including a points win at Las Vegas in March) and the one with the best chance to unseat five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Edwards, who will become a free agent at the end of this season, hasn't always had it this good. After taking nine checkered flags in 2008, he endured a 70-race winless streak, finally reaching Victory Lane again in the final two races of 2010.
So, what's going right, now? "Everything," says Edwards. "We're building better cars. Our pit stops are better. The engines are better."
To hear Roush tell it, the struggles boiled down to a glitch with Roush Fenway Racing's simulation software. And now? "I'd suspect we have more power than anybody in the garage," says Roush, who also praised the new FR9 Ford engines his teams began using regularly late last season.
"They've worked really hard, and they've turned their stuff around because they were in pretty bad shape in '09," says Johnson, currently third in the standings. "They've been setting the mark."
That goes for the entire organization. Roush Fenway drivers have 22 top 10s this season, including three wins.
"It's much easier to be consistent when the cars are as good as my cars are right now," says Edwards. Given that power and the chemistry he has with longtime crew chief Bob Osborne and the rest of his team, Edwards figures to keep right on rocking.
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What a Gas
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came within a few drops of fuel of winning his first race in nearly three years, running out of gas on the back straightaway of the final lap at Charlotte on Sunday night. He coasted around Turn 4 before Kevin Harvick passed him for the lead. Junior wound up seventh. "We took a calculated risk," said crew chief Steve Letarte, who is in his first season with Earnhardt, of the decision not to refuel before the green-white-checker finish. "It didn't pay off." Earnhardt and Letarte have six top 10s this season; in 2010 Dale Jr. had just eight in total. "It was a long race and a really hard race," a worn-out but optimistic Earnhardt said in the garage after finishing the 4½-hour marathon. "We ran really, really good tonight. The wins are going to come; we've just got to keep working."
CHRIS KEANE/REUTERS (CAR)
TRUE CREW Edwards (inset) praises the whole Roush Fenway operation for the 99 car's nine top 10s this year.
SHARON ELLMAN/AP (EDWARDS)
[See caption above]
STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES (EARNHARDT)