Carl Edwards wasn’t himself the last time he came to Kansas Speedway.
Edwards, who switched from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in the offseason, knew the chance his new ownership group was taking.
He also knew about crew chief Darian Grubb’s sterling reputation — firsthand, after a championship duel Tony Stewart won against Edwards with Grubb as his crew chief in 2011 — but a working relation hadn’t been well-established.
Historically, Edwards knew it often took time for teams to jell, to learn one another’s strengths and idiosyncrasies, to become championship contenders.
He also knew the current NASCAR Sprint Cup climate lacks the same patience it once did.
When Edwards rolled into town in early May for the spring race at his hometown track, Edwards still felt the crushing weight of immense pressure, even if he was reluctant to admit it at the time.
"When you make a change like the change I made, it’s such a big change and everything is so new," Edwards said. "It made me really question everything and, in some ways, it probably spurred me to be a little more self-critical and try harder just to prove myself to a new group of people."
Things began to change for Edwards — a Columbia, Mo., native who qualified second for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway — two weeks after a disappointing 19th-place finish in the rain-delayed SpongeBob SquarePants 400.
Grubb gambled and helped deliver a fuel-mileage victory May 24 in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a win that virtually locked a then-points-challenged Edwards into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"There’s nobody in the garage better at making calls than Darian," Edwards said. "He makes amazing calls, and he’s got a lot of guts up there. He’ll do it when it’s tough to do."
Edwards’ team didn’t immediately turn a corner, but it acted as a pressure-release valve that helped him finally settle into his new environs.
"That was basically, exactly it," Edwards said. "We got that win and that was exactly what we needed. We just needed something to rally around and to let the pressure release. We knew we didn’t have to go out and set the world on fire after that, it gave us a little time to work together and get to know one another better and now I feel so much different the second time around."
Edwards crashed out in back-to-back mid-summer races at Sonoma Raceway and Daytona International Speedway. He’d managed two top-10 finishes in 17 races at that point, but the fruits of being guaranteed a playoff spot started to yield results in the second half of the season.
"To take a snapshot at the first Kansas race and now, our team is different and we feel like we’re just better, a lot more calm," Edwards said. "I feel a lot better about it."
Edwards has 10 top-10s in the last 13 races and hasn’t finished worse than 15th in any race during that span.
Until that point, Edwards knew the No. 19 Sports Clips Toyota team wasn’t a threat to win the Sprint Cup title.
"Not the first half of the season," Edwards said. "We just weren’t running that well and we weren’t getting good finishes. When I tried to make something happen, I tried too hard."
What a difference a checkered flag makes.
"We have a lot more confidence now, because we’re able to qualify well, we’re able to run well and we’re able to get good finishes," Edwards said. "Nobody’s making mistakes. It just feels like a very well-rounded team right now."
Now, Edwards’ gaze is squarely affixed on the ultimate prize. He sits in sixth place among 12 drivers in the Chase’s Contender Round.
Of course, only 10 points separate Edwards from ninth-place Ryan Newman with the unpredictable beast that is Talladega Superspeedway looming in the final race of the round.
The top eight drivers in the standings after next week’s race advance to the three-race Eliminator Round.
Only Joey Logano, who won last week at Charlotte, and Sunday’s winner will feel safe heading to Talladega.
What would Edwards give to be Sunday’s winner and the first local driver to win a Sprint Cup race in Kansas Speedway history?
"I can’t think of a possession that I wouldn’t trade and I have a really nice airplane," Edwards said. "For a win here right now, I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t trade. What we do and everybody at the shop does and everybody at JGR, what we do is go try to win these championships. And we give everything we’ve got. If it were that easy, for me personally, there is no amount of money that a win right now, and especially here, wouldn’t be worth."
There’s a lot of work remaining before the Cup championship Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but Edwards now believes he can not only be there, he can win it.
"That would be awesome, man," he said. "That’s the dream. That’s the whole idea. When you think about it, if you look on our truck or on our car sitting over there or whatever, every one of these sponsors that came on board, every one of my crew members — the over-the-wall guys, Darian, even coach Gibbs — they all took a chance on making this fourth team happen. It’s not easy to make a fourth team happen. If we could go out and win this championship, it’s a Cinderella story."