RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 07: Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kellogg's Ford, stands near his car on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 7, 2012 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
From the moment he lost last season's NASCAR championship on a tiebreaker, Carl Edwards has been waiting for this day.
It's Friday at Chicagoland Speedway, the opening weekend of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Edwards, the preseason favorite, looked to this day to begin his redemption tour, to start erasing the memories of last year's agonizing defeat and embark on a journey that would end with him hoisting his first Cup championship trophy.
Sure enough, Edwards is here at the track. He's ready to go win Sunday's race. But the circumstances are not at all how he pictured them.
Twelve drivers are eligible for NASCAR's 10-race playoff and Edwards is not one of them. He failed to qualify for the Chase when a combination of bad luck, bad results and his former crew chief's health issues derailed the season.
So for an ultra-competitive athlete in the prime of his career, the question is this: Now what?
"I think I'm still trying to come to grips with it," Edwards said Friday, squinting into the midwest sun. "We put so much pressure on ourselves and things went so terribly. I'm really disappointed we're not in it – more than I can really describe to you guys."
Edwards is a goal-oriented man who embraces that pressure, uses it as an edge to fuel himself and his team. And now, on the day when he figured it would be the highest so far in 2012, there is none at all.
Something is wrong with this picture, and Edwards doesn't like it one bit.
"There's definitely a piece of the puzzle missing," Edwards said. "I showed up this morning and I'm so used to getting to this point of the year and this is when it all ramps up. Everything I've done this season has been geared toward these 10 races. The idea of missing them wasn't part of the plan.
"Now I'm as physically fit as I could be, I'm mentally prepared – and there's still victories out there – but there's not that huge goal. It's tough. I don't really know how to put that into words."
Edwards always tries to look for a silver lining in the darkest clouds, and he can see a small one at Chicagoland: For the next 10 weeks, he can race in a points-free zone. The driver can "try things I don't normally try," he said, such as taking more chances on restarts and making high-risk moves.
"That's all I can do," he said.
But there's even a downside to that strategy, and Edwards is in somewhat of a lose-lose situation because of it. For example: Imagine how agonizing it would be if he runs well and goes on a sudden winning streak with crew chief Chad Norris.
"What if I go out there in this 99 car...and win six races and dominate?" he said. "How sickening would that be to not be in it?"
In the absence of being able to compete for a championship, Edwards wants some sort of challenge. A reporter joked about racing Kyle Busch for 13th, but Edwards seemed to perk up at the very mention of it.
"Maybe I could get Brian (France) and (Mike) Helton and them to give $1,000 cash for 13th," he said.
Apparently trying to be helpful, the same reporter suggested Edwards could be the preseason favorite in 2013 if he had a good run in the final 10 weeks.
"Oh yeah, that gets me a long ways," Edwards said with a dismissive chuckle. "That hasn't worked out so far."
Ultimately, the only satisfaction might come if he can help Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle win the title (though even that might be tough to swallow on some level). Edwards told team owner Jack Roush he's willing to do anything to help Kenseth and Biffle, and he means it.
Heck, it's for his own good.
"You need to give me a goal," he said. "That's how I'm built. So I hope there's something fun like that."
But for a driver who expected far greater things in 2012, it's likely the next 10 weeks won't be too much fun at all.