Already known for his signature celebratory back flip, NASCAR driver Carl Edwards has added a new bit of revelry after taking the checkered flag: climbing into the grandstands to rejoice with fans.
"It's really neat to go up there," Edwards said after he did just that Sunday following his victory in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. "People are wound up."
Mixing it up with fans is appropriate for Edwards as he again shows signs of mixing it up with the best in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series after the driver and his No. 99 Ford experienced a long and unexpected dry spell.
Edwards did run well enough this year to be among the 12 drivers in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff, and he's fourth in the standings with one race left next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.
But although the top three drivers in the Chase — Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick — will decide the championship, Edwards is 264 points behind and has been eliminated along with the other eight Chase drivers. Hamlin holds a 15-point lead over Johnson, who is seeking his fifth consecutive title, and a 46-point edge over Harvick.
Edwards and his team, Roush Fenway Racing, are building momentum for 2011. His victory Sunday broke a 70-race winless streak for the Missourian and came after Hamlin, who had dominated the race, had to make a late pit stop for fuel.
That was a fortunate break, but Edwards qualified fastest to start on the pole, often outmatched Hamlin's speed in the race and led 93 of the race's 312 laps. And after Hamlin stumbled, Edwards' crew chief, Bob Osborne, successfully gambled that Edwards could conserve enough fuel to go the distance for the win.
"It's such a gutsy call to stay out there and stretch your fuel," Edwards said.
"Those are some long laps, those last few laps," but, he added, "there's so much to be gained by winning a race."
Edwards, 31, wasn't expected to need a comeback this year. In 2008, he won a series-high nine Cup races, finished second in the Chase to Johnson and entered 2009 with his sights firmly set on winning his first championship.
Instead, Edwards went winless last year and finished 11th in the standings as the entire Roush Fenway team struggled, winning only three races overall that year.
Edwards slowly improved this season — he has 18 top-10 finishes — as Roush Fenway began using a new engine called the FR9 and otherwise narrowed the competitive gap with other top teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.
But it wasn't until Sunday that Edwards finally could do his back flip again in the Cup series. (He did get practice in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series, where he also won Saturday at Phoenix.)
"It had been far too long since we've been in Victory Lane with Carl" in a Cup race, team co-owner Jack Roush said Sunday. "Everybody expects Carl to win, and Carl expects to win."
Of the title hunt, Roush said, "We're disappointed we're not there, but we'll try to be there next year."
Edwards agreed, saying he was "very proud of how our team has come together" despite the winless streak.
"Here we are in Victory Lane, fourth in points, salvaging a season that did not begin well," he said. "We very easily could have fallen apart."