Columbia native and NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Carl Edwards only knew his new crew chief, Dave Rogers, by reputation before a late-November meeting last year.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“From that first meeting, it’s almost seemed too good to be true,” said Edwards, who finished 11th on Saturday night in the Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway. “I’d only known Dave as a competitor. He’s a really fierce competitor. When you’re on the other side looking at Dave, it’s a little bit intimidating. … At the end of the year, we talked and basically we were on the exact same wavelength, and it hasn’t changed. We haven’t had our first argument yet.”
It helps that Edwards’ No. 19 Stanley Toyota team is tearing up the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series through the season’s first 11 races.
Edwards already boasts two victories — April 17 at Bristol Motor Speedway and April 24 at Richmond International Raceway — along with two poles, April 9 at Texas Motor Speedway and then at Bristol.
Edwards, who has five top-five finishes and eight top-10s, credits the chemistry with his new team for the early success.
“So far with Dave and this whole crew, my pit crew and everybody, it’s just been spectacular,” Edwards said. “I’ve never been in a situation like this where we’ve been this fast, having a good time and everybody’s communicating well.”
When Edwards arrived for last season’s spring race at Kansas, his home track, he was in a rut.
Before the 2015 season, Edwards left Roush Fenway Racing when Joe Gibbs Racing added a fourth Sprint Cup team. He was paired with crew chief Darian Grubb, who was on the box when Tony Stewart edged Edwards on a tiebreaker to win the 2011 Cup championship.
It felt like a forced arrangement as the team struggled to get in sync for months.
“Darian put together that team with coach (Joe Gibbs), and I think we all had huge expectations,” Edwards said. “We weren’t living up to them, and it was a real struggle. We were working hard and I was trying too hard. I was pressing hard and lunging for life. Every race it was like that. I’m really proud of the way that we gathered it up at the end of the year, but, at this point in the year last year, it was a real struggle.”
Edwards scored a fuel-mileage win at Charlotte Motor Speedway one week after Kansas last spring to lock himself into the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup for the third straight season and the ninth time since 2005.
He went on to claim the pole for three races and also won again in September at Darlington Raceway before reaching the round of eight in the Chase last fall, but that didn’t stave off a shakeup.
“Towards the end of the year, I won the Southern 500, which I really felt like was a turning point for me,” Edwards said. “We got the job done and won the race. We figured out how to work together and get better results. Other than the rain at Phoenix, I really feel like we would have had a shot to win a championship.”
Still, Edwards is clearly more relaxed and comfortable this season.
Perhaps it’s as simple as being locked into the Chase for the 10th time in the last 12 seasons, but the camaraderie he feels with Rogers certainly is a factor, too.
“Dave, in particular, is a true competitor, 100 percent wants to win,” Edwards said. “We’ve got each other’s backs, and it’s just really fun. I feel like somebody would be hard-pressed to pry Dave away from me.”
Edwards also is relishing NASCAR’s new lower-downforce racing package, which he believes puts the outcome of races back in the hands of drivers. It allows for more grip in the draft or in traffic, which has significantly increased the ease and volume of green-lap passes this season.
“The less emphasis we have on aerodynamics, the more the driver’s ability to control the race car sliding around comes into play,” Edwards said. “The harder it is to drive the race car and the harder it is to make the thing drive perfectly, the more of a sport it is. It becomes really a battle between me and these guys versus the other teams. That’s fun.”
Edwards was a big proponent of the changes — probably the biggest in the garages — and certainly seems to have benefited greatly based on early-season results.
But Edwards — who hadn’t won two of the season’s first nine Cup races in any season since 2008, when he took the checkered flag nine times and won three of the season’s first seven races — said it’s the racing product he’s more proud of than the results.
“The lower-downforce package and the tires we’re able to run with them, it just provides better racing. Period,” Edwards said. “Regardless of how I run, I really believe that’s the type of racing that, as a fan, I want to see and, as a driver, I want to participate in. With either package, I think we would have been OK, but I’m definitely having more fun with this package.”
As much fun as he’s having, Edwards also knows there will be doldrums again and valleys that test his burgeoning relationship with Rogers and the rest of the crew.
“I’m a realist and I understand that we do have very fast cars right now and we’ve had good luck, we’ve led the points and won two races — all those things give you rose-colored glasses,” Edwards said. “Everything looks good right now. As a team, we haven’t had three or four bad weeks in a row, where we’re really tested. That’s going to be the true test. We’ve had small glimpses of it, but I’m aware that we’ve been given a gift and it can get tough. I also believe this is a group I’d like to go through that with, so hopefully it works out.”
Edwards won a Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway, two hours from his hometown in 2004, but a Cup victory has proven elusive.
Edwards was the runner-up at Kansas in 2008 and finished third in 2005. He owns six top-fives and 12 top-10s in 18 career starts.
Edwards off to a fast start
Through the first 10 races of the Sprint Cup season, Carl Edwards’ average finish is 8.7.
Note: SP-starting position; FP-finishing position; LL-laps led