05/25/11 — Stevens: Edwards' optimistic approach bringing dividends in 2011

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Stevens: Edwards' optimistic approach bringing dividends in 2011

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on May 25, 2011 1:46 PM

Carl Edwards won the final two NASCAR races in 2010 and took an optimistic approach for the 2011 season.

That optimism has proven to be more than just a hunch.

The current points leader in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Edwards has been on fire since early April. The Columbia, Mo., native has finished seventh or better in the past six races, has nine top-10 finishes and has failed to lead a lap in just two races. He has started 13th or better in the last four races and has led 214 laps during that stretch.

Edwards won at Las Vegas in early March and claimed three of four segments along with the checkered flag in Saturday night's All-Star race.

Edwards' success has come thanks in large part to strong performances from his pit crew and the strategical wisdom of crew chief Bob Osborne. His crew got him out first in front of Kyle Busch on a mandatory, four-tire pit stop prior to the final 10-lap shootout in the All-Star race. That track position proved to be critical as Edwards hung on for the victory and a paycheck worth $1.2 million.

A victory at Phoenix in November of 2010 snapped a 70-race winless streak for Edwards. He won the season finale at Homestead a week later and finished fourth in the points. It put a positive spin on a season that began with just one top-five finish in the first 18 races.

Edwards has been down this road before.

He won nine races in 2008, including the season finale, and was hailed as the challenger to Jimmie Johnson in 2009. The result was a season in which Edwards did not win a single race or pole, and he recorded just seven top-five finishes.

Edwards won two of the final four races of 2005 and finished third in the points. He followed that up with no wins or poles in 2006 and a 12th place finish in the points.

Johnson, the five-time defending Cup champion, has not found overwhelming popularity among the sport's fans to be a result of his success. He has been criticized for his perceived lack of personality and his disconnection with NASCAR fans, who are comprised predominately by the working class.

Edwards, meanwhile, has endeared himself to fans by venturing into the stands following victories to include spectators in his celebrations. He removes his sunglasses during television interviews and his trademark backflip is a nice change of pace to the often mundane burnout.

Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick pushed Johnson to the brink during last season's wildly entertaining Chase for the Sprint Cup. Hamlin took a slim points lead into Homestead, but was not able to close the deal.

NASCAR desperately needs a contender to challenge Johnson, drive ratings and keep fans interested.

It may have found its man.

His name is Carl Edwards.