KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Carl Edwards threw out the first pitch for the Kansas City Royals last season, and remembers walking back to the dugout afterward when one of the players pulled him aside.
“It was so nerve-racking,” Edwards recalled. “One of the pitchers looked at me and said, ‘It’s awfully lonely up there, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir!'”
Probably as nerve-racking as the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Edwards was part of a four-car stable from Joe Gibbs Racing that qualified for NASCAR’s version of the postseason. But after lousy runs last weekend at Charlotte put Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch in trouble, the pressure is on Edwards and Denny Hamlin to carry the flag.
Edwards still believes in the power of the Gibbs cars, which collectively won 13 times this season, more than any other team. But with only Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway and next week’s race at Talladega before the Chase trims four more drivers for the three-race “eliminator” round, the tension in the garage area Friday morning was palpable.
“So much can happen at this race and obviously the next race, this whole thing can get turned around,” Edwards said. “This format, by design, it’s almost impossible to predict.”
One thing that is clear: Winning means an automatic ticket to the next round.
Joey Logano took care of that at Charlotte, dominating at a track similar to Kansas to take the pressure off him this week and next. And make no mistake, there is no other track where Edwards would love to follow suit than Kansas Speedway.
The native of Columbia, Missouri, considers the tri-oval his home speedway, and it has been kind to him in the past, with six top-five finishes and a second-place run in 2008.
But he’s also never won at the track. The year he finished second, he tried an audacious dive move to try to get around Jimmie Johnson at the end. He wound up slapping the wall while Johnson drove to victory, and said later the move had worked for him in video games.
“I can’t think of any possession I wouldn’t trade” for a win at Kansas, Edwards said, before pointing out that “I have a really nice airplane.”
Even his Citation jet, which carries a price tag well into the millions.
“For a win here, right now, I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t trade,” Edwards said without a hint of sarcasm. “There’s no amount of money that we wouldn’t give.”
Edwards has proven he can reach victory lane in his first season with Gibbs, winning two of NASCAR’s premier races in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington. But those wins merely ensured he would be around for the playoffs.
Now, he needs a win — or enough points — to advance. He’s currently sixth in the standings, a fairly safe spot. But the elimination of perennial favorite Johnson in the last round once more proved that relying on points is a risky proposition.
“It’s a very different format,” Kenseth said. “You look at Jimmie, the problem he had, and he’s out. If it’s a 10-race deal, maybe he’s not out. … Two races, I mean, if it happened to us in one race, it can happen to anybody in this race or the next race.”
Kenseth is referring to his poor run at Charlotte, when he slapped the wall a couple times and finished so far off the lead that he is last in points among Chase contenders.
So far, Edwards has been able to avoid any such problems. He was second in the Chase opener at Chicago, fifth at New Hampshire, 15th at Dover and sixth at Charlotte, showing off the kind of consistency that can be so elusive in a volatile playoff format.
When asked for a turning point in his season, Edwards points immediately to his victory at Charlotte in May. That proved his new team with crew chief Darian Grubb could get it done.
“We got that win and it was like, ‘Man, that’s what we needed,'” Edwards said. “We needed something to rally around, and let the pressure release.”
He could have used that kind of pressure release on the mound at Kauffman Stadium.
Edwards, who grew up a Cardinals fan, escaped any embarrassment in his first-pitch experience with the Royals last year. And while he’s been offered tickets for Game 2 of their AL Championship Series against Toronto on Saturday, he’s not sure whether he’ll be able to attend.
He has some business to take care of at the track first.
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