The way the past two years have gone – particularly the way Daytona went – there’s no way Carl Edwards was going to win the easy way Sunday.
He had led 75 laps and had a tidy margin over Jimmie Johnson with three to go. As long as the green flag was out, this was in the bag.
Then Ken Schrader tapped the wall and the Subway Fresh Fit 500 got interesting.
“I was thinking, ‘Now if we win it, we’ve really earned it,’ ” Edwards said after his first Sprint Cup victory in 70 races. “I wasn’t really nervous, but I was really buckled down. The heart-rate monitor on me would have been really interesting.”
Edwards proved just as dominant in the green-white-checkered finish as in the long run that preceded it. With Ford teammate Brad Keselowski pushing, Edwards held off Johnson and Denny Hamlin for the victory at Phoenix International Raceway.
Suffice it to say this has been a wild three weeks for Edwards. He was swept up in five wrecks in various Daytona races. He joked before the race Sunday that Johnson’s nickname, “Five-Time” (for his championships), now applied to him in a more flippant fashion.
Doubt was creeping in for him and all around him in the Jack Roush No. 99 team.
“It is hard to explain – when you’re struggling, time slows down,” Edwards said. “You question yourself more; (2012) was one of the longest years of my life – to work that hard and not win.
“To not be in the Chase, to sit at home (during the awards ceremony) in Vegas, that was a shock.”
A shock that prompted change. During the offseason, Jimmy Fennig took over as Edwards’ crew chief, but not without some preconditions – specifically, minimal oversight from Roush, a hands-on owner.
Edwards joked about that, imitating Fennig saying, “I’m not going to have Jack sitting on my box, looking over my shoulder all the time!”
They can all laugh about that now because they found success. Edwards’ drought went back two years almost to the day, with his last victory coming in Las Vegas in March of 2011.
The springboard for Edwards’ win was Danica Patrick’s wreck with just more than 100 laps remaining. That sent everyone to a pit stop in anticipation of a long green-flag run. Edwards’ Ford looked to be the strongest car in the field at that point after pole-sitter Mark Martin fell off the pace.
Then Schrader’s tap of the wall made it a race again.
Johnson thought Edwards was bending the rules in the restart, slowing to below the speed of the pace car. That can take the lead car out of the pursuit’s line of vision, so that when Edwards hits the gas, others aren’t similarly prepared to accelerate.
Edwards denied he was practicing gamesmanship.
“I thought (Johnson) was playing some sort of trick by speeding up,” Edwards said. “Maybe I was slowing down, but I wasn’t trying to. He waited a little too long to go (full throttle). Truthfully, I was not trying to do anything.”
Keselowski and Hamlin made the finish intriguing. Keselowski got right behind Hamlin, propelling him forward for an optimum restart. Though they both now drive for Ford, this was not an expected event based on their history of friction.
“It got pretty bad for a while,” Edwards said of hard feelings between the two. “That was an amazing example of what we can do for Ford. It’s very cool of Brad to push us. I knew once we got to Turn 1 we’d win.”
Then the race was for second. Hamlin took a daring course down to the apron, looking to simultaneously pass Johnson and Keselowski. He beat out Keselowski, but Johnson managed to hold off the charge along the high side of the track.
After the race, Edwards did his trademark back flip. Roush wondered if Edwards could pull it off, so out-of-practice he’d become.
Hamlin said it’s good that Edwards is “relevant” again. Edwards couldn’t disagree.
“Amazing,” he said. “This feels as good or better than any win I’ve ever had.”