Thursday, July 22, 2010

Backflips and backsliding

I want to like Carl Edwards. I really do. He's from Missouri, likes the Tigers, and enjoys bike riding, three things that help you be a good man. I got his autograph at Harpo's one night. His story is the story of many NASCAR drivers, rising from obscurity and dirt track racing, catching a break, then making the most of it. 

Jack Roush took a chance on him, and Carl came through, winning in just his 18th race. He finished 5th in the points in his first full season (2005) and won 9 races in 2008, finishing a gallant-but-defeated 2nd behind the invincible Jimmie Johnson. He recently got married. He and his wife had a baby daughter this February.  

But lately, as everyone has seen, things have gotten messy. A promising young career has turned ugly, uncomfortable, disappointing. There was the incident in October 2007 where Carl faked like he was going to punch Matt Kenseth, his far far far far more successful teammate, a driver who could/should have been a mentor figure for Carl. It was the first major chink in Carl's smiling, happy-to-be-here, good-guy persona. 

Kenseth has 18 wins to Carl's 16, but much more importantly, he has a championship and a Daytona 500 win under his belt. He deserves some respect. Carl looked entitled, spoiled, like a petulant child. It was a cringe-worthy moment, like Robinson Cano waving a bat at Derek Jeter. 

Then there's this ridiculous feud with Brad Kesolowski, which apparently started when Brad pulled the nimble feat of wrecking Carl at Talladega by driving in a straight line, holding his position when Carl wrecked across the nose of Brad's car in a futile, too-late blocking attempt. There was an ugly headhunting incident earlier this year at Atlanta, when Carl sought out and wrecked Brad late in the race, causing a vicious wreck. Then came last Saturday in St. Louis, when they two bumped back and forth before Carl finished things with an outright wreck job on the final straightaway. 

In Victory Lane afterward, Carl defiantly said exactly what he did and why, simply saying he wrecked Brad because he needed to win. This is in stark contrast to Dale Earnhardt, who after winning a race late in his career by spinning out Terry Labonte, actually tried the bizarre idea of showing some contrition, recognizing there's a line between "rubbin's racin' " and blatant wrecking of an opponent. 

But you mostly know the details, probably better than I do. That's not my point here. Rather, my point is a promising young career is falling apart, and Carl is lashing out, perhaps understandably, as he fades further into NASCAR anonymity. 

Carl currently has a 55-race winless drought, and is teetering on the edge of qualifying for the Chase for the Championship. One day you're Mighty Jimmie's top competition, the next you're a glorified Ryan Newman, minus Hello Newman's bizarre stumbling blindly into a win in the Daytona 500, the 50th edition of the Great American Race, no less. 

And this flap with Kesolowski is just sad, given what should be the driver's differing statuses. It's like if Matt Holliday and Mitch Maier developed a feud. And now that Carl is fighting with Keselowski in the Nationwide Series, NASCAR's Triple A, it rings of a junior high bully going BACK to elementary school to pick on an old nemesis. Trouble is, Brad has three Nationwide wins to Carl's two, and is 168 points ahead of Carl in the standings. (This is after NASCAR's tissue-soft penalty on Edwards, combined with the points he gained from wrecking Brad, actually resulted in a 19-point gain for Carl out of the whole thing. To be fair, Brad is also a Cup driver now, although he is still considered a Cup rookie.) 

NASCAR is working on a new rule to severely limit Cup drivers' participation, although Carl continue to make absurd statements on the issue, saying he is a Nationwide Series driver going for sponsorship deals at the Cup level... Huh? Just... Really, Carl? 

Then there's this, the most important, telling stat for the new, irritable Carl: 

Nextel Cup wins since the start of the 2009 season: 

Brad Keselowski: 1
Carl Edwards: 0 
(Matt Kenseth: 2, if you're scoring at home) 

But this can be fixed. Everyone gets worked up from time to time, and we all do things we regret. Carl is only 30 (he turns 31 in August). He may never be Jimmie or Jeff or Tony, but he can still have a nice career. He can be a role model for his daughter as she grows up. He can excite and inspire with his racing and actions. 

I just don't know anyone who was inspired by what they saw last Saturday night in St. Louis. It's time for this talented driver to rise above the feuding and focus on stepping up his racing... at the big boy level. 

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