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Column: NASCAR’S Carl Edwards flies, and not just around the track

Carl Edwards

NASCAR driver Carl Edwards sits in his car during a practice for the Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 26.

(Chris Trotman / Getty Images)

Other than a nifty TV commercial campaign, the Most Interesting Man in the World has little on Carl Edwards.

Edwards drives a race car. Real fast. So fast that, if you rode along during a race, they’d take you out of the car at the end with a broom.

Edwards is among NASCAR’s best drivers. To be that, you have to be able to drive for hours at a time, at speeds in excess of 200 mph, with other cars a couple of feet behind and a couple of feet ahead, and space the width of a coat of paint to your left and right.

To the rest of us, that is insanity. To Edwards, it’s a day job.

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Edwards is 36, a Missourian, a physical fitness specimen, and so well spoken that college English professors would hate him. TV ought to have him drive in the race and call it too.

But there is more to Edwards, so much more. The TV commercials tout their “Most Interesting Man” with the likes of: “If he mispronounces your name, you’d be compelled to change it.”

Edwards is the real thing, not just the product of great script writing.

Among other things, he:

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•Flies his own Cessna Citation.

Our interview was right after noon Tuesday. He left home in Missouri after breakfast and was setting down at Santa Monica Airport at midmorning. Sure, there’s a time change, but still …

“It was a great day, a great flight,” he said. “You just can’t appreciate enough what it’s like flying along at 45,000 feet.”

No co-pilot or passengers on this trip. Just Edwards and the need for speed.

•Loves the outdoors.

After several media obligations Tuesday, Edwards packed up his camping gear and drove into the local mountains, where he unloaded a tent and spent the night. No co-camper. Just Edwards and the need for some peace and quiet.

•Gets frequent TV gigs.

Before he climbed back into the cockpit Wednesday to fly back East to his next race, he filmed a segment of the Fox TV series “The Grinder” (starring Rob Lowe).

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“I don’t think I’m there because of my acting ability,” Edwards said. “Fox does the NASCAR races and I think there is a little cross-promotion going on.”

•When he wins a race, he doesn’t just get out of his car and drink milk. He does a backflip from his window.

“I’ve never missed one in public,” he said, adding that he was inspired to add this flourish to his victory scene when he saw a poster of baseball’s Ozzie Smith on the bedroom wall of a friend.

•Keeps his family (wife and two kids) very private, but smiles with pride on the topic of his wife, Katherine Downey, a doctor in Columbia, Mo., who treats those with serious brain injuries.

•Once dated Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard, who, after they broke up, wrote a book about her life and was less than complimentary about Edwards. More accurately, she tore him to shreds.

•Is a fitness devotee, who has appeared shirtless on the cover of several national magazines. NASCAR fans are known to consume a six pack with the same dedication that Edwards works on his.

•Wore the HANS (head and neck support) device before most drivers ever heard of it.

When Dale Earnhardt hit the wall at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500, an accident that looked harmless but claimed the racing star’s life with a broken neck, the stabilizing device became mandatory in NASCAR and in racing in general.

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“I was just a guy, working on the crew of Tony Roper’s team at the Texas Motor Speedway [in 2000] when I saw him get killed,” Edwards said. “Then I saw another driver die at Knoxville, Iowa, and I started thinking that this could happen to anyone.”

So Edwards went out and bought a HANS device for his modified dirt racer.

“It cost $1,600,” he said, “which was as much as the car’s engine cost.”

NASCAR’s most interesting man will be at Dover, Del., this weekend, for Sunday’s third race of NASCAR’s playoffs. They are a series of 10 season-ending races, with four drivers eliminated from the championship race each week (they still get to race on for also-ran points and money) until the final four get to battle it out for the championship on Nov. 22 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Edwards, who has won 25 NASCAR Sprint Cup races and finished in the top 10 201 times, is right in the mix for this year’s coveted championship. His highest finish came in 2011, when he tied Tony Stewart but lost the title on a tiebreaker.

He was asked which was more important to him — winning the legendary Daytona 500 or the Sprint Cup championship.

“Not even close,” Edwards said. “The championship is everything.”

After years of competing for Roush Racing, Edwards moved this year to the team of Joe Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins football coach. Edwards said that the Roush team was like family, but that sometimes change helps you move up. That has happened under the leadership of Gibbs.

“I learn something from him every day,” Edwards said. “He once told me that he didn’t know what people do who don’t compete every day.”

No question, Edwards competes, which clearly is only part of what makes him interesting.

As a matter of fact, if he wins NASCAR’S championship trophy, the trophy will feel honored.

Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @DwyreLATimes


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