You could see and hear the dejection in Carl Edwards after the checkered flag flew this past Sunday (Oct. 2). He clearly had the car to beat, leading 116 of the race’s first 176 laps before a pit-road speeding penalty – his first one all year – during green-flag stops ultimately cost him the victory. It was a self-inflicted wound and it came during the most crucial stretch of the year, during a playoff when errors can be less forgiving.
As a result, should he lose the Chase title by the smallest of margins, everyone, especially Edwards, will look back at Dover as the race that cost him. However, it is wise to think about it the other way around.
While dejected about the penalty, Edwards tried to look on the bright side about how things unfolded after scratching and clawing his way to third place.
“We were very, very fortunate,” he said. “As frustrated as I am with myself for messing that up, I’m really, really grateful for the gift that was given to us with that caution and the ability to come back up there. And the other thing that was really important to me was my guys sticking behind me, because they had every right to be really, really upset with me. So, it ended up being a good finish.”
Indeed, it was a positive result. As a matter of fact, Dover could end up being one of the most pivotal races of his career. While it will be talked about quite frequently in the following weeks about whether that penalty will end up costing him the title, it is important to look at how the situation turned out. By rallying back from a lap down to finish third, Edwards’s drive back to the front was a statement race. He made the most of a setback, coming back from outside the top 20 and made a hard charge for the final podium spot.
He didn’t get frustrated, had the support of his pit crew, and methodically worked his way back into contention. In fact, if there had been a few extra laps, he likely would have completed the comeback by winning.
Not too many years ago, a charge through the field like Edwards had on Sunday may have not been all that impressive, but with track position and pit strategy more important than ever, the fact that he RACED his way back to third is very much so. In making that recovery, he went from possible Chase oblivion into the top spot as the points leader with seven races left, sharing that position with Kevin Harvick.
As I mentioned in my column two weeks ago about how Jimmie Johnson should have been happy with his 10th-place finish at Chicago, Edwards should be just as thrilled with his third-place performance at Dover. Why? Because the mistakes that cost this team a win weren’t enough to cost them a good day in points.
Maybe that’s why Edwards remained optimistic during a happy-go-lucky post-race press conference. The co-points leader summed up his day with a very accurate statement:
“Someone wrote a long time ago – I don’t remember which book it was but my buddy, Carl Frederickson, had this book at his house that said, ‘Racing is not – you don’t succeed by being the guy that does everything perfect; you succeed by being the guy that minimizes mistakes.’ Everyone is going to make mistakes and they are very difficult to get over.”
I couldn’t agree with this philosophy any more. Edwards made a mistake, but he was able to minimize the damage. It is important to realize that while the Chase can easily be lost by making a mistake, it can just as easily be won by making the most out of a bad situation.
For example, go back to 2004 during the very first Chase. Kurt Busch entered the final race at Homestead as the championship leader, but a loose wheel nearly derailed that title run. Busch narrowly missed the pit road wall by inches, skidding to his stall but was able to put on some new tires without any significant damage. The setback put them behind, costing them track position, but the team was able to charge back to the front and ended the day in fifth with only an eight-point cushion for Busch’s first and only Sprint Cup.
That has since defined the Chase more than anything, even winning. During the course of his five straight titles, Johnson has certainly had his share of Chase victories, but he and the rest of the No. 48 team have been the absolute best at minimizing mistakes.
There have been countless occasions since 2006, when Johnson recovered from a 165-point deficit where they have looked out to lunch only to somehow sneak into contention at the very end. Just last year, Johnson won the title not because of his win total; it was because he limited his mistakes. Denny Hamlin, who had two victories to Johnson’s one in last year’s Chase, had the points lead going into the final two weeks only to lose it because of one thing – you guessed it.
It was a mistake by Mike Ford, a poor Phoenix pit call that affected Hamlin heading to Homestead to the point neither driver and team was able to fully recover.
There is no denying Carl Edwards cost himself the win at Dover. Many will see it as a tough break and throwing away what looked to be a dominating victory. However, what I saw from Edwards on Sunday wasn’t a lost opportunity; it was a championship-caliber performance. It is easy to lose the lead, but very difficult in today’s NASCAR to race your way to the top spot.
In what easily could have been a day that knocked him down the points standings, Edwards is now at the top of the points, with three top 10s in the first three Chase races. Come mid-November, we could be looking back at Dover not as the race that cost Edwards the championship, but as the one that defines his 2011 title run.
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