Carl Edwards generally loves the two races a year at Kansas Speedway.
He was born and raised in Columbia, Missouri, and spent his formative years racing late models across the Midwest. So to this day, Edwards considers the mile-and-a-half speedway just down Interstate 70 and on the other side of the state line his home track.
He gets to see family and friends. The crowd adores him. There really are no drawbacks.
Except that he can’t seem to win there. And that presents a problem heading into Sunday’s Sprint Cup race. It’s the second stop in the three-race round of 12 in the championship Chase, and a win would take the stress out of Talladega by assuring him a spot in the next round.
“It’s pretty obvious the pressure is pretty high in general with this format,” said Edwards, who will start third on Sunday . “But there is more pressure coming here. And it’s good pressure.”
In fairness, Edwards actually has been to victory lane at Kansas, though it was in the Truck Series more than a decade ago. He dueled with Bobby Hamilton that day, and still remembers thinking he had some engine trouble after taking the checkered flag. When he shut it off, he realized the rumbling that he’d heard in the driver’s seat was the crowd roaring its approval.
It was the first time Edwards could ever remember hearing the crowd over the sound of the engine.
Kansas hasn’t been so kind to him in the intervening years. He’s won 38 times in the Xfinity Series, but never in seven tries at Kansas, and none of his 27 wins in the Sprint Cup Series has come there.
Perhaps most disappointing is how often his car has been capable of winning.
Whether driving for Jack Roush or Joe Gibbs, Edwards has typically found his way to the front at some point in the race. Eleven different times he’s led a lap, he’s finished in the top 10 a dozen times, six times he’s been in the top five, with a career-best finish of second in 2008.
Edwards qualified second in the Chase race a year ago before finishing eighth.
“This place, it’s going to be special when we go to victory lane. It’s going to be really cool,” he said, making clear that it’s a matter of “when” and not “if” he wins a race.
“Just the idea of winning here in front of all these people who supported me so much,” Edwards said, “that would be huge. But the icing on the cake would be no pressure at Talladega.”
Jimmie Johnson already has the pressure off after his win last weekend at Charlotte, and one of the 11 remaining Chase contenders could be in the same situation on Sunday.
Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch qualified on the front row, while Edwards gave the Gibbs stable a sweep of the top three spots. Throw in Martin Truex Jr., whose Furniture Row team has an alliance with them, in fourth, and Denny Hamlin qualifying seventh, and it could be a banner day for their team’s Chase hopes.
“It’s just a testament to Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota to be able to do what we’ve done,” Busch said, “and to have three of them in the front three spots and then Truex there in fourth. That’s really good.”
Even if they don’t win Sunday, the Gibbs team could still take some drama out of Talladega.
Kenseth, Busch, Edwards and Truex escaped engine trouble and wrecks at Charlotte, giving them a bit of a points cushion over five Chase drivers who finished 30th or worse. Among them was Hamlin, who finds himself this week in the tenuous eighth — and final — spot for advancing to the next round.
“The year has been pretty solid for the organization. We all had a pretty good day (in qualifying),” Kenseth said. “It’s great having teammates that good, but it’s also hard to beat them.”
You can count Edwards among them.
The only blip he’s had this weekend was a poor first run in qualifying, which he wiped out with a better effort later in the opening session. He wound up making the final round of qualifying to take third on the grid, and was hovering solidly around the top 10 in the final practice session Saturday.
It was enough to raise his hopes for that long-awaited home win.
“I definitely envy Jimmie Johnson right now. Those guys did a really good job last week,” he said. “I know he’s going to be on his bike a bunch and relaxing and having a good time the next two weeks. We want to be able to do that going to Talladega.”