Edwards' first time at track results in a first-place finish

He learns on video game, then captures Pocono 500

Vickers 2nd under caution

Auto Racing

June 13, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LONG POND, Pa. -- Carl Edwards doesn't look like a man with nerves of steel. His business-shirt blue eyes and his glistening white smile make him look more like one of those handsome models you'd find in Gentleman's Quarterly. His girlfriend, who was at his side to celebrate the second victory of his career here in the Pocono 500, is swimmer and model Amanda Beard, a medal-winning Olympian.

How much more wholesome can you get?

Clark Kent, yes. Superman, no.

And yet, Edwards seemed capable of accomplishing anything yesterday. Driving his No. 99 Ford to victory over Brian Vickers and his No. 25 Chevrolet in a race that ended under caution seemed the least of it -- even if he had only previously seen the tricky 2.5-mile tri-oval in video games prior to Friday.

This is how he spent the early morning hours before the race:

"I woke up and we were five miles from the airport," said Edwards, who flew from the rained out Busch Series race in Nashville to the airport at Mt. Pocono with his car owner, Jack Roush, piloting his small private plane.

"I looked at the windows and I couldn't tell if they were fogged or if we were in a fog bank," Edwards continued. "There was zero visibility and Jack was flying totally by his instruments. The instrument panel was ablaze with blinking lights and I knew the airport was at 1,200 feet."

Edwards watched as the plane descended -- 2,500 ... 2,400 ... 2,000. The closer to land they came the more he started to imagine the mountains and trees.

"I told Jack later it was the scariest thing I'd ever been through," he said. "But at the last minute, at about 500 feet above the ground -- I tell you, trust is a big thing. You're looking at that gauge and it says you're 500 feet about the ground, but do you really know? It's pretty crazy. But at 500 feet he pulled up and we went to Wilkes-Barre [Pa.]."

There, at 3 a.m., seven people had to find a way to crowd into Edwards' Ford pickup truck designed for six. Edwards rode the nearly 40 miles in the truck's bed, bouncing around as they traveled at about 60 mph.

"That scared me more than the flight," said Roush, who nearly died three years ago when he crashed his small plane in a remote lake while joyriding on his birthday. "I told Jason [Hedlesky, who was driving], `If you see Bambi in front, I don't want you to swerve left. I don't want you to swerve right. I want you to hit him dead center.' Carl was taking a real chance and saw to it that the rest of us were all seated comfortably in his truck."

After that, driving a racetrack on which he'd had two hours of real practice was the easiest part.

He had never raced here, so gear-ratio changes that did away with gear shifting and distracted veterans didn't bother him. He'd never shifted gears here before.

"It was absolutely a real advantage for me," said Edwards, who was the only driver among the seven different leaders who actually made an on-track pass for the lead -- a move he managed three different times. "It was a huge advantage. It would have added another level of worry. Driving this racetrack, it took a lot of my mental capacity just to run the laps here.

"Around 170 laps it's just hard to remember what corner you're going in to. I know it sounds funny, but that's the way it is."

Edwards, 25, rode his bike around the track several times Friday night and used a video game to help him prepare. He said it is just a NASCAR game off the shelf to which he has added a steering wheel and clutch.

"The lines are very clear, the timing is precise and you can even put gear-ratios in," he said. "It's amazingly close to the real thing and it helps to a point. After that, it can give you bad habits."

He obviously stopped in time.

Edwards climbed in points from ninth to fourth, as he kept his car off rumble strips in the turns that were tearing up the tires of many of his toughest competitors. And his crew watched the tire air pressure and camber (wheel alignment) and avoided stressing the side walls of their tires unlike a lot of other teams.

In the end, it all came down to trust, once more. Trust in his engine. Trust in his team. With the field gathered behind for a restart for a final two-lap dash to the finish, Edwards stepped on the gas and pulled away, running toward victory even before another caution froze the field for the finish.

"Being in second and picking people apart is what I enjoy," Edwards said. "Today, this was more heart-pounding. It takes a different level of confidence, a different style. I needed a win like this."

NOTES: Mark Martin was headed for a second or third-place finish until he ran over something and cut a tire as he attempted a pass for second on Lap 199 of the 201-lap race. He finished seventh, with Joe Nemechek, Kyle Busch, Michael Waltrip and Jimmie Johnson getting past him. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. had another disappointing day, with three different tire problems that relegated him to a 33rd-place finish. Asked if his team will undergo more crew chief or crew changes, he laughed sadly. "I'm probably not the one to ask. I just hope there isn't going to be a driver change." Earnhardt dropped to 16th in the Nextel Cup points chase, 504 points behind leader Johnson.

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