NASCAR

Edwards aims to return to top form

Image: NASCAR driver Carl Edwards (© Kevin Liles/USA TODAY Sports)
Carl Edwards is embracing new crew chief, new role in attempt to rally.
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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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CHARLOTTE, NC

In the last decade, has there been a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship contender from the previous year fall off the speed chart as fast as Carl Edwards did in 2012?

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Arguably, Denny Hamlin’s 2011 meltdown was severe. The collapse of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team inevitably resulted in the break-up between Hamlin and long-time crew chief Mike Ford. At the time, Hamlin lacked the stability that Edwards’ life off the track offers him, but Hamlin still won a race and finished in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that season.

Still, during Edwards’ tenure with Roush Fenway Racing, there’s been a pattern of severe drop-off in the seasons after the driver has battled for the title and lost.

Neither he nor teammate Greg Biffle broke into the top 10 in points after both finished 35 points behind Tony Stewart in 2005. Edwards went winless the following season. After he lost the 2008 championship to Johnson by 69 points under the old system after posting a career-best nine victories, he failed to win or finish among the top 10 in 2009. But neither did his then-teammate Matt Kenseth, who won the first two races that year before Roush Fenway Racing detoured from its traditional technological path.

But Edwards had no excuses in 2012. Both Biffle and Kenseth won multiple races. Heck, Biffle was a title contender for the first 26 races and finished fifth. Despite being a lame duck, Kenseth finished seventh in the standings. And Edwards, who signed a lucrative contract the previous year, not only went winless, but his 15th place in the points standings was a career low.

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Certainly, the loss of crew chief Bob Osborne in July due to a medical condition didn’t help the cause. Under the direction of rookie cup crew chief Chad Norris, Edwards dropped from 11th in the standings to outside of the Chase for the Championship zone. Yet even prior to Osborne’s departure, Edwards had led laps in just two of the 19 races and posted two top-five finishes.

With Kenseth’s departure at the end of the 2012 season, Roush Fenway Racing opted to move his veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig to right Edwards' No. 99 team.

“Obviously at the end of the season, we had to do something with Carl and we had Jimmy Fennig sitting out there,” Vice President of Competition Robbie Reiser said. “We had to sit down, look at our whole company and decide what is going to be the best for use. How do we set up our three teams to go out and get the best job done. We decided to put our senior driver with our senior crew chief.”

Team owner Jack Roush feels he’s giving Edwards every advantage to succeed – including a crew chief such as Fennig, who has worked with many champions in the past.

“Jimmy Fennig is one of the best crew chiefs this sport has ever seen,” Roush said. “When I think of crew chiefs that are at the absolute top of their game, I think of Dale Inman (Petty Enterprises), Ray Evernham (Hendrick Motorsports) and Jimmy Fennig in terms of senior guys that have been there and done that.

“Carl had one way of working chemistry-wise and interaction-wise with Bob Osborne that was very effective for a period of time. But Bob had his health problem about the same time that the sport changed enough that his method of saying, ‘Just tell me what the car needs’ and ‘Tell me what the car wants and I’ll decide what it needs.’ Bob took it on himself to put Carl in (a) fast car without a great involvement from Carl. That’s not the way it’s done in most programs.

“Jimmy Fennig requires a greater interaction with a greater input from the driver. And he’s been very successful with Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and of course with Matt Kenseth and Bobby Allison, who proceeded that. I’m convinced that Jimmy has a formula that will work. Carl believes in it and he’s willing to change his method and approach to things and Jimmy and Carl have a reason to be successful together in their commitment to each other.”

Edwards realizes that he must be “the variable that is changing.” The 33-year-old racer who commutes from his Columbia, Missouri home, has to make an effort to spend more time in Concord at the Roush Fenway campus.

Edwards says he’s already investing more of himself at the shop and with the team.

“Number one, it can’t hurt to be around more and to be more engaged,” Edwards said. “Two, it’s a new group of guys for me -- almost completely. There are only two guys on the team that I worked with. So it’s getting to know everybody, getting to understand what we’re going to during practice. The test at Charlotte (Jan. 17-18) was really good for me. I got to know my tire guy a little bit. He kind of understood what I wanted to know. The shock guy, the engineers – new people, you have to understand what they need to know and I’ve been working hard at that.”

The success of last month’s test also offered Edwards a glimmer of promise of what this year could be. He realizes that proficiency on 1.5-mile tracks, which make up 11 of the 36 races (including five in the Chase) and 10 of Edwards’ 19 career wins, are critical to a successful season. In 2012, one of Edwards’ three top-fives and four of his 13 top-10 finishes were earned on intermediate tracks.

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  • Who will be the most improved driver in 2013?
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“That test was a big moment for me,” Edwards said. “I thought about that test all winter. Those tracks are the bread and butter for the whole season. You can make a championship run with just good runs at those tracks and our test was awesome. We were superfast, so that was good.

“The intermediate tracks, the fall in performance at those types of tracks, was a little bit scary last year. From my first race, I’ve always been super confident at those tracks. That’s why this Charlotte test was so important to us. We needed to make sure that there wasn’t something that we were missing there. It might be bad because we were so fast there that I might have a lot of confidence there going into those types of races, but I still think there are things that we can work on.”

Edwards laughs when asked about Fennig. After spending time with his new crew chief, he says that Fennig has surprised him. Despite the veteran’s quiet demeanor – which Edwards acknowledges he might have mistaken for “not being engaged,” the driver firmly believes that Fennig’s rooted deeply in what’s going on in the garage.

“To me, from the outside, it appears to me that Jimmy has a very good perspective,” Fennig said. “We’re going to work hard, we’re going to do a good job and we’re going to reap the benefits. That’s not something that he yells at people about – at least he hasn’t yelled at me about anything. It’s just expected. That’s the feeling I get from him. That he holds everybody at a high standard. And that’s good. When we’re at the racetrack, so far in the little time we spent there, it’s not a joke. It’s not a social event. We’re there to do a job.

“The more I get to know him the more excited I am because I see how good he is with the people and how engaged he is with the cars.”

Although Edwards doesn’t wish to dwell on last season, he acknowledges that his team didn’t evolve as quickly as the Nos. 16 and 17 of teammates Biffle and Kenset. In a world where simulation plays an important element in setting up the cars for the racetrack, his teammates seem to acclimate quicker to the necessary adjustments throughout the weekend which made the cars faster. Edwards is also looking forward to working and testing with the No. 16 team and crew chief Matt Puccia to get up to speed again.

For now, Edwards believes a back-to-basics approach will expedite the process.

“We have to qualify well," he said. "We have to have cars that race fast. We have to have a fast pit crew. Jimmy and I have to work together. All of the basic things, we have to do right. If you look at the way that Matt ran with Jimmy last year, it was head and shoulders better than we ran – than I ran – in that 99.

"My plan is to give Jimmy and the guys on the 99 team everything I got, be the best that I can be and I’m hoping that gets us back where we feel we belong, which is fighting for a championship.”

Tagged: Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin

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