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Hot out of the Box

Carl Edwards is not afraid to wet himself. "He's one of those," says Joe Wernert, his truck driver. "Petty did it too. Every race. He could be in it 10 laps, and he's already gone in his suit." It's mid-January, and the Roush Racing 99 crew is at Daytona for speed trials, testing their cars against the track and the competition so they'll know what works come February. Edwards, finishing a lap, has radioed in a bladder situation. "I don't know why he can't just hold it already," says Pierre Kuettel, the team's car chief. "Plenty of guys do."

Edwards roars into his pit hangar and bursts from the driver's window. He bounces to the trailer, unzipping his suit as he hops. He disappears into the back, then emerges, grinning and feeling a little lighter for his next lap. "That was worth a 10th," he says, exhaling.

"See," Kuettel says. "He can wait … when he wants to."

Edwards is the first to admit he hates waiting-for anything. He is, after all, a race car driver, a man accustomed to making life-altering decisions while moving at nearly 200 mph. For him, a little urine in his driving suit is nothing when compared with the rewards of winning a Nextel Cup. It is, he says, a sacrifice he is willing to make. This is a guy who, at age 26, has chased down success quicker than even he could have imagined.

"I haven't figured out my larger goal," Edwards admits. "It used to be to get to the point I'm at right now." He chuckles, then blushes. "I'm like the dog that caught the car. What do I do now?"

Five years ago, he was just another driver carving up short tracks across Missouri, with an 1835cc Volkswagen engine and no budget. Now he represents the new NASCAR model: less red of neck, more take-hometo-mama. NASCAR wants to be America's sport, and it needs drivers like Edwards college-educated, well-spoken, versatile-to appeal to a broader fan base. "He's marketable as hell," says Joel Edmonds, a venerable tire man and now spotter for Roush racer Greg Biffle. "He's single, approachable, nice as they come, good-looking." Basically, the type who could sell umbrellas in a drought.

Carl Edwards is not your average NASCAR jock. He doesn't swagger. He lacks the simmering masculinity, the edgy, tight quality of men who consistently flirt with disaster. In truth, he is more of an endearing goof, the kind of guy you'd set up with your little sister. "I like to build models, things like remote-control airplanes," he says. He played drums in his high school marching band-and thought it was cool. "I like reading textbooks, Carl Sagan, anything about the scientific method. I love National Geographic. I subscribe."

Edwards has wolf-pale blue eyes and a jutting chin. He wears his sandy hair cropped short, military-style. His teeth are large and prominent and framed by deep, boyish dimples, lending him the sort of face that will look young foreverinnocence imprinted by genetics, apple pie with hair. But his body is his own creation. He's obsessive, working out every day, sometimes twice, starting as early as 5:30 a.m. At 6'1", 185 pounds, he is lithe and ropy, with muscles that snake conspicuously under his skin. "I work out because it's something I can do by myself, to invest in myself," Edwards says. "Tony Stewart is a perfect example of how little it matters in this job."

If any part of Edwards reflects his profession, it is his hands, which are as thick as bricks and wide as planks, the nails uniformly torn past the quick. "A bad habit," he confesses, one of his few. Unlike most of his peers, he doesn't drink, or smoke, or eat junk. He does swear, after you get to know him, but you hardly notice, done as it is in that wholesome Midwestern accent, flat and without rancor, sounding less like cursing than like someone reciting instructions on how to curse.

"I did try to smoke once, in high school," Edwards says gamely. "I kept trying to light the thing, for like five minutes. I must have smoked about a half-inch of the filter before I figured out I had it backward."

If he comes across as a Dudley Do-Right amid a posse of roughnecks, it doesn't worry him. "I'm fueled by optimism," he announces with a broad smile-although this is a bit of a cheat. While the ever-sunny Edwards does believe that life generally turns out just fine, he also works harder than most humans to insure those results. Kismet may supply the opportunities, but only a fool ignores them.

"He has always been single-minded," says his father, Carl Sr., who owned a Volkswagen garage in Columbia, Mo., and was a seasoned local racer back when Carl Jr. was building little antiroll bars and chassis modifications on his toy cars to make them faster than his friends'. When Carl Jr. reached 21 and was still living at home, his parents suggested that maybe he try another career besides racing. He was on an academic scholarship at Missouri, they reminded him, so maybe he should concentrate on his psychology and sociology studies. "I tried to be practical," says Carl Sr. "There are 50,000 Saturday night racers, and most don't even make enough to pay for the racing. The most I ever won was $500. I wanted him to stay in school. I wanted him to work during the week."

But Carl Jr. saw things differently. For the next three years, he became willfully consumed with racing, leaving his studies behind. (He's now only a few credits shy of his degree.) He didn't even go out to dinner or the movies. "I had to be productive," he says. "It drove people nuts."

Like his first serious girlfriend. "When she and her mom came to visit my dad's garage, I couldn't wait to show them my race car," Edwards recalls. "I flung open the shop door and her mom was like, Ummm, so, w hat else do you do?' I said, `I could sit here and tell you my whole plan if you want. Trust me, it's awesome!' She was convinced her daughter was dating some idiot."

He pauses, reflects. "I don't think I had a social dysfunction or anything," he says hesitantly. "In my mind, it wasn't just about racing. It was about the mission."

Edwards, generally broke, would sometimes sneak into racetracks dressed in a racing suit to dodge admission fees. Once inside, he changed into dress clothes and went on his own shameless public relations campaign, asking everyone to let him drive their cars. "I was laughed at," he says. "I bothered people to the point where they wouldn't take my calls. They all said I was crazy. I had people sit me down and look me straight in the face and say, 'You are not right.' I always believed all I had to do was impress one person, win one good race."

In 2003, Edwards finally impressed the right guy. Jack Roush had been keeping his eye on Edwards and hired him as a Truck Series racer. Less than two years later, Carl was behind the wheel of a Nextel Cup car. He ran 13 races as a virtual unknown in 2004, before four victories last yearand his habit of celebrating them by doing back flips off of his carsecured his spot in the public eye. "Now all I worry about is how to go as fast as possible," he says.

Saying Edwards enjoys speed is like saying Barry Bonds enjoys antagonism. It goes beyond pleasure, beyond need even. For Edwards, velocity is cellular. He is not chasing speed; speed inhabits him. He walks too fast, thinks too fast, leaves people behind literally and cerebrally. His mother thought he needed Ritalin. His younger brother, Kenny, thought he was an ass. But really, he was just traveling at a different pace, occupying a different space-a place where light bends and life blurs and adrenaline goes down like water.

It wasn't anything he asked for. "I was born this way," he says. "For example, I hate waking up late. Even as a kid, if I got up after other people, I felt like I'd wasted my time. But in racing, you have to be cautious. The hardest part for me is not to be overly aggressive, to not try to make something happen that isn't going to happen. That has been a hard lesson for me to learn."

"Carl wrecked a lot of people last year," Edmonds says. "Rookie stuff. He's behind, gunning in the final laps to be, say, fourth, and he knocks someone else back to 25th-just to place fourth-which is not cool."

And yet Edwards remains untainted. "He has always apologized," Edmonds says. "He's the first guy to walk up and say, `I screwed up.' And he has that sweet face." Edmonds shrugs. "The thing about Edwards is, he's so nice he gets away with everything. He's like the guy who screws the boss's daughter and the boss just shakes his hand."

DAYTONA FANS have gathered three rows deep outside the glass wall that separates them, aquarium-style, from the 99 team garage. Some hold pictures of Edwards, frantically waving them when he glances over. He smiles and nods graciously between tire changes, promising he'll sign at the end of the day.

"We tell Carl all the time, those girls waiting for you wouldn't be there if you were just plain old Carl from Missouri," jokes Eric Slade, the team's shock specialist.

"I'm not interested," Edwards retorts, referring to a large percentage of his new fan base, the percentage prone to showing up unannounced in hotel lounges or hoisting their baby T's at races. "I don't want to complicate my life. Three different women a week would do that."

After his final lap, Edwards pulls into the hangar, kills the engine and squeezes from the car window like he's exiting a foxhole. Lunch break is an hour. As Edwards strips out of his suit and goes for a solitary run, his crew lines up in the hauler for barbecue and coleslaw.

Most crews resent Daytona, where restrictor plates limit engine power, creating a 43-car parking lot. They know that a lot of fans are hoping to see blood and fire on race day--and blood and fire, most teams believe, are not good for business. "It's stupid," says one crew member derisively. "There's more risk to Carl. Anyone screws up and you get collected in somebody else's problem." "When a driver dies," quips a mechanic, "they just throw down some Speedy Dry to soak up the blood, repaint the walls, and 20 minutes later, the show is back on." Another crewman shakes his head. "Nah, that ain't right," he says, waiting a beat. "It's more like 30 minutes." The whole team laughs, then returns to piling their paper plates with chicken and chopped pork.

"Carl was asleep an hour ago," Wernert announces to the gang. "In the pit lane." "Asleep at the wheel," says tire-changer Jason Myers, with a snort. "He was," Wernert replies. "I had to wake him up on the radio."

Lunch ends. Edwards trots into the lot just in time to change and slide back into his car. His crew chief, Bob Osborne, hands him an orange and a grilled-chicken sandwich. Edwards thanks him and squeals out toward the track. On the radio he makes small talk with teammates, who tease him about his impromptu nap.

"You don't want to jinx us," Kuettel warns. "Ah, I don't believe in that stuff," Edwards fires back. "We just gotta keep doing what we've been doing." "Ten-four," Kuettel says. "Teeeen-four," Edwards echoes, with such glee that it makes his whole crew smile.
Truth is, Edwards really is grateful. And gratitude fuels graciousness, which builds camaraderie, which makes working with Edwards a hell of a lot more enjoyable than toiling for certain other drivers who have no problem blaming their crews for mistakes or telling NASCAR, as one former champion did, to "lick my salty b-s."

"Carl is a rare thing among drivers," says Jason Hedlesky, an aspiring driver and Edwards' current spotter. "Modest. And I mean off camera." After testing for seven hours, Edwards has 90 minutes before he's scheduled to appear on a Q&A panel for NASCAR fans. Instead of rushing back to his hotel, he borrows a Sharpie and signs pictures for the folks along the glass wall. He signs every single one, then poses for more pictures, flashing his wide grin each time. He doesn't hurry or sigh or look at the clock. Instead, he asks questions: "Where you from? What got you into racing?" He actually enjoys this, communing with fans. Plus, he's terrified of becoming a schmuck.

"I don't worry about dying," Carl says. "I don't worry about becoming paralyzed. The only thing I worry about is becoming one of those drivers people whisper about and say, `He used to be such a nice guy.' "

Edwards flashes a parting smile to the fans. "I don't ever want to change," he says through his teeth. "I just don't."

DRIVING A race car is like running around a house on its gutters. Being on the edge is mandatory, because if you're not on the edge you are losing. Yet there is something soothing, nearly relaxing, about looping around in circles, the tidal roar of the engine lulling you into a trance. "On the racetrack, sometimes I forget the world is watching," Edwards says. "It's a little cocoon. I'll get out and be shocked there are other people around."

Odd things happen when you travel through the world at uncommon speed. Holes form in your memory. Time literally gets lost. "Cars will sometimes have passed me that I have no recollection of seeing," Edwards continues. "I could take a lie detector and swear it never happened, but then I go back and watch the tape, and sure enough º"

Such blank spots might cause a lesser man some concern, given that you're far more likely to collide with the car you don't see than with the one you do. Edwards acknowledges it is perplexing-he has even sought help from brain physiology textbooks-but in the end, he remains sanguine about the ultimate consequences: "There isn't much of a place for fear in racing."

Or, if you're Edwards, in rental car driving. On his day off after testing at Daytona, he's gunning his loaner truck like he's still on the track. He screeches from light to light. He rubs curbs and ignores stop signs. He jumps speed bumps like skate ramps, letting out a "Woohoo!" whenever his tires leave the ground. He is, it seems, physically incapable of slowing down--which is fitting, because for drivers the race never ends. There is, for example, the unspoken competition to be the racer who exits the venue the fastest. This is no small matter. Drivers purchase airplanes and helicopters and motorcycles and dirt bikes to facilitate their escape from one racetrack to another. Then there's the competition for the biggest bass boat, the largest yacht, the most ostentatious country house, the most remote island, the fastest jet. One driver offered $75,000 to an old man in Florida because he owned the rights to the initials the driver wanted on his airplane. (The man refused.)

Edwards already owns a Piper Saratoga. He bought it used, for around $400,000. "I'm frugal," he says. "I've always been that way." Still, there is a new jet, the Eclipse 500, that he has his eye on, "because it's faster." He learned to fly when he was 17, after watching Top Gun. He figured knowing how to take flight might be useful some day. "I like dissecting how things work. I'm big into why. I feel like that helps me with racing."

So he interviews the stranger next to him on a plane, or looks up the formula for airport acronyms--or for bleach. He takes nothing for granted, preferring microscopic examination, a tendency that exasperates the people he loves. "Amanda is a pretty cool chick," he says, referring to his girlfriend of eight months, Olympic swimmer and sometime Maxim model Amanda Beard. "But I know I can wear her out. My brother, too. And my mom, who's always telling me to relax and go with the flow. But I don't really do 'relax.' "

This includes his day off. Instead of idling on the beach, Edwards has decided to pilot his plane for an impulsive visit to his primary corporate sponsor, Office Depot. He is sharply dressed: black collared shirt, black slacks, nice shoes, hair gel, subtle cologne. The look is less NASCAR driver, more doorman at a Los Angeles boutique hotel. Once airborne, he opens the vents in the plane. "I run hot all the time, you know?"

When, two hours later, Edwards enters the Office Depot headquarters in Delray Beach, Fla., he sends a ripple through the cubicles. There is excited whispering. Meetings are spontaneously adjourned. "I thought Santa Claus was here," says one junior designer. Secretaries ask Edwards to sign their shirts. Executives line up to shake his hand. Everyone congratulates him on last season. All the while, senior sponsorship manager Jeff Owen tells anyone who will listen, "He just popped in!"

"I wanted to tell everyone how much I appreciate all the stuff y'all are doing for me," Edwards says with unimpeachable sincerity.

Later, in a closed-door meeting with Owen, the star makes a small request: "It's my fault, I know, because I chose it, but I'd like to make a change in the suit." Turns out his crimson Office Depot driving suit, the one that seems so dynamic in those TV ads and newspaper inserts, looks more like a baboon's ass in person. "I know how hard everybody worked and all," Edwards says slowly. "But my crew was teasing me about it. If there's any way …"

Owen interrupts him. "Say no more. I'll handle it. The bottom line is you have to be happy."

Edwards keeps explaining. "On race day, I really need to feel comfortable, and …"

Owen stops him again. "And who is going to say anything to Carl Edwards? You are a hot property, man. Everybody wants a piece of you."

Edwards thanks Owen, thanks Office Depot, thanks the universe, and makes his exit. Flying back, he talks about how eight months after Roush hired him, he drove home to Missouri for a visit. He went into his old garage, sat down on the same footstool he had used while working on his cars as a boy and began to weep. "I wasn't ready for how much my life had changed," he says. "I used to think, 'What would it be like to have all those expectations on you?' And now I do."

He gazes out the window until a cloud bank engulfs the plane in gauzy white. "I fell asleep my first day in college," he says, changing the subject. "I figured, what could be that important on the first day?" There's a rumor that Edwards also fell asleep once while piloting his plane-alone-a story he will neither confirm nor deny because "insurance people hate hearing that stuff, and my insurance is already really expensive."

So Edwards tells a different story. "For years, I had a Casio watch that I set to beep every hour," he says. "When it did, I'd ask myself if I was awake or dreaming." If he was dreaming, he'd try to edit his thoughts as he fell back to sleep. He wanted to introduce lucidity to his subconscious, to brainwash himself. In time, he got pretty good at it. He could manage his resting mind, becoming his own subliminal influence. He could contrive any imaginable landscape, induce any fantasy. But he had only one.

He was on a race track.

And he was winning.