And that could bode well for the eminently talented Edwards, who in 2010 grew his fan base and enhanced his reputation by going into the grandstands and high-fiving race fans after winning races. Among the Roush drivers in the Chase era, the Missouri native has the most race victories, 18, to Biffle's 15 and 11 for Kenseth. Edwards's 18 first-place finishes tied him for fourth overall since 2004, behind only Johnson (47), Tony Stewart (22) and Kyle Busch (19).
But as Hendrick and Roush both learned the hard way in 2010, there is little carryover year to year in the Sprint Cup Series. In 2011, the Ford and Dodge teams will all have a new upper nose, while all four manufacturers will have new and more attractive lower nose sections, with no more of the ungainly splitter braces.
And Roush Fenway probably can't count on as much help from RPM in 2011 as they got in 2010. Kahne and his talented crew chief Kenny Francis have moved on to greener pastures at Red Bull Toyota, while RPM has shed 75 employees and two of its four teams as it goes through yet another ownership change with an uncertain future. “Jack's cars are fastest when there's another competitive Ford team,” a Ford Racing official says. “He does better with in-house competition.”
Whoever figures out the nuances of the new nose will have a distinct advantage at the start of 2011, just as Joe Gibbs Racing did when NASCAR switched from wing to spoiler in 2010. And make no mistake about it, in this day and age, NASCAR Sprint Cup races are won by engineers – the brilliant and highly educated nerds who run the seven-post machines and sift through wind tunnel data – as much or more as they are by the men who drive the racecars.
How else could one explain how Edwards won nine races in 2008, then went 0 for 70 in 2009 and the first 34 races of '10, before ending last season with dominating victories? Get the car right and the driver can do his job. Otherwise, he's screwed. It's really not a whole lot more complicated than that.
For Edwards, finally dethroning Johnson in 2011 is Job No. 1.
“How do we beat those guys? I believe that our slope, our game is a little steeper than theirs right now,” says Edwards of Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports squad. “The question is, can we keep that going? We have been better at times: We've proven that. Other people have been better at times. But on average, the No. 48 team has just been better than everyone else.
“I look at what we have; I look at the two cars sitting next to one another and I understand that those cars are made of shocks, springs, the chassis, the body, the engine… I look at all those parameters and where we are headed, and I feel like we are making really good progress.
“So with that being said, we just have to hope that we can continue that. How do we stack up compared to them? I still feel like we are on more of an upswing than we were in 2008.”
We'll all know soon enough if he's right or not.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the February 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.