If the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup started tonight at Kansas Speedway, Carl Edwards would be in an unfamiliar position — on the outside looking in.
Edwards, 35, moved from Roush Fenway Racing, the only home he’d known in 11 prior Cup seasons, to Joe Gibbs Racing during the offseason.
He’s got a new crew chief, Darian Grubb, and he’s also driving a Toyota Camry instead of a Ford Fusion, but Edwards refuses to blame the myriad changes for his early-season struggles.
“It’s really not been that much of an adjustment,” Edwards said. “Everybody’s really awesome, and it’s amazing really how seamless everything went.”
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It’s clear there’s still an adjustment period for Edwards and the No. 19 Stanley Toyota team, which qualified fifth for tonight’s SpongeBob SquarePants 400.
Edwards, a native of Columbia, was the runner-up for the championship in NASCAR’s top series in 2008 and 2011. He has won 23 career Cup races and boasts 188 top-10 finishes in 383 career starts.
In 10 full-time seasons, Edwards has never finished worse than 15th in points and placed inside the top 10 six times.
He enters the first of two races this season at Kansas Speedway in 18th place, more than 150 points behind front-runner Kevin Harvick.
Asked to diagnose his slow start, Edwards said his desire to attack everything he does with everything he has has led to the slide toward the fringe of Chase contention.
“I always try to go at things really hard and then back up to whatever works,” he said. “I hate finishing a race or doing something and then saying, ‘Man, I think I could have done a little more there.’ Sometimes, it’s a little painful to start, but that’s kind of how I’ve started my whole NASCAR career.
“I came over here and my mission was to win the Daytona 500, then win Atlanta, then win Las Vegas, and I’ve had to back up a little bit. That’s just part of it. I put a lot of pressure on myself and I want to perform well. I’m finding the edges of my box.”
Rotten luck also has played a role so far this season.
Edwards finished 12th after a flat tire at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the season’s second race. Two flat tires led to a 17th-place finish a month later at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
In between, Edwards crashed while running in the top five at Las Vegas and finished 42nd. He also crashed in practice at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and had to run that race in his backup car, salvaging a 13th-place finish.
A few weeks later, Edwards also crashed while running second at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and wound up 24th.
He had a chance for a top-10 finish last week at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway before getting caught up in a last-lap wreck, which is typical at the restrictor-plate track, and winding up 32nd.
“I think he set his expectations really high and tried a little bit too hard while we’re still trying to learn what he needs in the race cars,” Grubb said. “We’ve fought ourselves a little bit, just trying too hard and not finishing where we needed to finish. We definitely took the hit there in points for the first several races. … But you could see he was definitely extremely anxious and wanted to go prove that he made the right decision.”
Edwards is beginning to realize that he must rein himself in a bit. That practice crash in California was a turning point.
“He started to settle down around California, with that crash in practice and showing him the data with what we had with our race car versus the backup car, and what we had to struggle through to get through that weekend,” Grubbs said.
When it happened again at Bristol, Grubb and his team made one thing clear to Edwards, who flies from his hometown to Charlotte, N.C., for a Tuesday meeting each race week with his team:
“We’re never going to give up on him, but we want to make sure he doesn’t give up on himself,” Grubb said. “He’s got to keep that confidence. We don’t want him to lose that.”
No worries there, as Edwards doesn’t seem to lack for confidence.
“I 100 percent expect to be in the Chase,” he said. “That’s not even a question. But to get there, I have to be very realistic. We can’t run like we’re running right now. We can’t finish like we’re finishing.
“We have to maybe play it a little safer for a little while, but … over the past 10 years or whatever, I’ve learned how to be one of the best points racers in the garage and make the most of what we have. Right now, I think I need to get in that mode a little more.”
Of course, the flip side is that a victory would relieve the pressure for Edwards of trying to get into the Chase on points.
That’s what makes Kansas, which he considers his home track, such a conundrum for Edwards. There’s no track he’d rather win at, but he’s got to be smart rather than risk digging a bigger hole in the standings.
“I’ve got to be careful here,” Edwards said. “I have a way of ignoring all the risk here and kind of just going for it. But my goal is to win the championship, and it’s to win it this year.”
Grubb has been the crew chief for a Cup champion before, when he helped Tony Stewart claim the 2011 title ahead of Edwards in the closest points in series history.
“We talked about it right off the bat,” Edwards said. “It was kind of fun to actually to talk about it with him and how he saw it. It’s pretty cool actually. It will be so neat to win with him, to win a championship together would be really cool just because of how hard we’ve battled before.”