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May 23, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Edwards Tries To Gain Ground On Leader Johnson In NASCAR'S Longest Race
This is a weekend that has something for every race fan – from the 97th Indianapolis 500 to the Grand Prix of Monaco to the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s the “Super Sunday” of motorsports around the world, as auto racing is king on this one day.
And that leads to the Coca-Cola 600 – NASCAR’s longest race that first began in 1960 at the original 1.5-mile, high-banked oval.
With Jimmie Johnson winning the Sprint All-Star Race last Saturday night and having a commanding lead in the Sprint Cup standings, this race marks the time where many drivers need to pick up the pace to position themselves to make the Chase after the 26th race of the season in September at Richmond, Va.
Two Roush Fenway Racing drivers hope Sunday’s night’s Coca-Cola 600 is a chance for them to make some progress in the points. Carl Edwards is second in the standings, 44 points behind Johnson, and would love to decrease that deficit. Greg Biffle is 12th in the standings, and a win would not only move him up in the standings but also give him a valuable edge in the wild-card race to make the Chase.
Both drivers have finished in the top five at CMS but have never won the 600, which is unique among NASCAR events not only because of its length but also because it starts during the day and ends at night.
“Certainly the timeframe that you go through for a 600-mile race and how much the track changes, the temperature changes, all those things create a huge factor,” Biffle said. “The start time ends a little bit into the evening. Charlotte has been one of the more temperature-sensitive racetracks we race on. Literally 5 or 10 degrees temperature swing in the track will create a lot different speed. That's the one thing that's really challenging.
“Normally a guy that's fast in the beginning won't be the fastest car at the end of the night. That tends to be probably the most challenging for the crews and the drivers.”
Edwards is probably NASCAR’s most physically fit driver, known for his marathon physical endeavors, which makes him well-suited for the 600-mile event. While the 600 is physically demanding, it also creates a mental challenge.
“Specifically, I don't prepare a lot differently physically,” Edwards said. “But mentally I think all of us have to prepare a little bit for the extra distance. It is a grueling event. If the temperatures are high the whole weekend, everyone starts the event hot and worn out already. So 600 miles, you can look at it and say it's only 20 percent longer than the other race we run at Charlotte, the 500-miler, but there's something about that last 100 miles that makes it a lot more mentally tough.
“I think also from the mechanical side of everything, the engine department has to make sure that everything is going to last. You worry about hubs and drive plates, transmissions, all those things that wear out. An extra 100 miles is a long ways, especially with how hard we're pushing these cars. Last week we saw how tough this track can be. Mentally and mechanically it's a tough race.”
Edwards won the pole for the All-Star Race last Saturday, but no Roush Fenway drivers were able to lead a lap in the non-points event. While that has no bearing on the season, he was asked if it is ominous leading into the 400-lap endurance contest Sunday night or on the other intermediate racetracks that are on the schedule.
“It's not where it needs to be, where we want it to be,” Edwards said of the Roush Fenway intermediate program. “Everybody in the shop is working as hard as we've can. Trust me, we've sat down and had some meetings where we've had tough conversations about what we need to do to be better, what we can do. Greg, Ricky (Stenhouse) and I have talked about things we can contribute to help speed up the development of our cars.
“But we also talk a little about the good things we've got going on. We had a super-fast start to the race at Kansas. Ricky was the fastest car at the end of the race. If we were going back to Kansas tomorrow trying to add perspective here, it's not all doom and gloom if I could pick one car out of the field at Kansas, I would pick Ricky's car. They were super-fast, but strategy didn't work out.
“That's a bright spot we had. The other one was that we were all so fast in qualifying for the All-Star Race. I know Greg thought he was really fast. My car was amazing. At the start of the race up there in clean air, we were pretty good. We are just a little bit off. The one that makes us all nervous was Darlington because we all thought we were going to run really well there. There's no better driver at Darlington than Greg Biffle. I feel like I'm pretty good at Darlington. We struggled there. That's one that really made us nervous.
“We feel like Atlanta, Homestead, those places drive a lot like Darlington where the tires fall off. That's what we're working on right now. The good thing is we have a lot of time leading up to the Chase, and that's where we feel we really need to peak.”
Edwards admitted the team is putting extra emphasis on upcoming tests at the tracks where Roush Fenway has experienced a drop-off in performance. The good news for Edwards and his RFR teammates is there is plenty of time to correct those issues.
“We have two things we have to work on,” Edwards said. “The things that are good, we're fast, in qualifying we're fast when the track is fast. We're really good at the restrictor plate tracks right now. My 99 car was really fast at Richmond. So we don't feel like we have a ton of work to do there. We can lean on what our 99 car did. But we still have to work on our Loudon and Martinsville flat, shorter-track stuff.
“We're going to try to focus on our weaknesses so we can be as good as we can be in the Chase. We plan on having all three cars in the Chase. If we can have a little bit of good luck all around, we've got a really good shot at being pretty good in the Chase.”
Edwards has never won a Cup race at CMS but has five top-five and 10th top-10 finishes in 16 career starts. He was ninth in last year’s 600 and seventh in the 500-mile race last October at Charlotte.
Biffle is also searching for his first Charlotte Cup win and has five top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 20 starts at the 1.5-mile track. He was fourth in both contests last year.
But through the first 11 races this season, Biffle has just one top-five and four top-10 finishes, including back-to-back 36th place tallies at Richmond and Talladega preceded by a 19th-place effort at Kansas and 17th-place finishes at both Phoenix and Las Vegas. Those are reasons why he is 12th in the standings, 112 points out of the lead.
“Well, certainly it was disappointing at Richmond,” Biffle said. “We had a shock failure. Then getting caught up in the wreck in Talladega. You can never predict what's going to happen at Talladega, for sure. Darlington, we finished 13th and it wasn't the run we were really looking for, but it wasn't that bad. At least that felt like we were getting back on track.
“It is disappointing because we were up in fourth in points, had a little cushion to work with, so if we did have some kind of issue, it wouldn't drop us down so much. But it's a long season. I hate using the same old analogies, but we still have time to claw our way back up in there. If we get a good couple finishes in a row, a couple top fives, win one of these races, I certainly think we're going to be right back in the hunt.
“We need to continue to get our cars better is where we're really working. We feel we're a little bit behind the competition, not far. But getting competitive and winning a couple of these races, points will take care of themselves.”
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