Just so there's no misunderstandings, Edwards far from giving up

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Carl Edwards is noticeably nervous standing just inside the door of his No. 99 hauler on a rainy Friday. He can drive 200 mph at Talladega Superspeedway and make a daring "slide" move like the one he made at Kansas Speedway to temporarily pass Jimmie Johnson for the lead on the last lap without thinking twice. Ask him about his personal life, and he gets uneasy.

Who can blame him, actually? Edwards has gone from practically a no-name before he won consecutive races at Atlanta and Texas in 2005 to become a threat for the Sprint Cup title to one of the more recognizable faces in the sport.

Whether it's driving a car in a television commercial with the Aflac duck or showing off his six-pack abs and pectorals on the cover of Men's Health, the 29-year-old native of Columbia, Mo., is everywhere you turn.

Sometimes he gets more attention than he'd like, such as two weeks ago when he and Kevin Harvick got into a physical confrontation at the Nationwide Series garage at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Or last season when he took a fake jab at Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth after a race at Martinsville.

Kyle Busch jokingly took a shot at Edwards recently on a radio show, saying he is "probably on more juice than Barry Bonds."

Edwards slowly is learning to handle such things. But it's that intensity that occasionally drives him over the edge that also makes him believe he can overcome his 198-point deficit to Johnson during the next four races in the Chase for the Cup, as hopeless as that might seem.

It was here at Atlanta Motor Speedway three years ago that he began a comeback from a 149-point deficit to come up only 35 short of Tony Stewart.

"Hell, yeah, I think I can do it," said Edwards, who won a season-high six races before the 10-race playoff began.

At the same time, Edwards wants people to like him. He doesn't want to be NASCAR's bad-guy poster boy like Busch. He often feels misunderstood, that people don't believe the person behind his toothpaste smile is genuine, particularly when he can maintain that look in the most adverse situations.

Harvick definitely has something against him, saying after the confrontation, "I could give two sh--s about who Carl Edwards is and what he's in the race for."

"People have told me it bothers them," Edwards said as he prepared for Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "I don't know what to tell them. Go talk to the people I spend my time with. I'm generally a pretty happy guy."

For the most part, Edwards is no different now from the person who once handed out business cards trying to land a ride -- any ride -- in any series. He's the same person who performed his first backflip for a Cup audience after a win in the 2005 spring race at Atlanta.

He hangs out with many of the same friends he went to high school with, and his mom, Nancy Sterling, is one of his closest friends. He still doesn't carry a lot of cash in his pockets, although he has plenty after signing a multiyear extension with Roush Fenway Racing earlier this year.

"I'm rich," he jokingly said.

But fame and fortune haven't changed Edwards to the point that he wants to return to life as it was before, when he could walk down any street or into any restaurant without being recognized, when he was substitute teaching to support his racing, his then-hobby.

"I had this overwhelming desire to get to this point," Edwards said. "Why should I want to go back?"

If anything, Edwards wants to move forward. He wants to win a Cup title so badly he can taste it. Perhaps that's why he got so upset when Harvick blamed him for a Talladega crash he already knew was his fault and called him a pansy for hanging around the back of the pack.

"He prefers not to have the bad-boy image," crew chief Bob Osborne said. "Circumstances in this sport sometimes lead you down that road. That's what he doesn't like. He knows his character and we know his character, and it's not the bad-boy, tough-guy persona that comes out every once in a while.

"It's a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, and he hates that sometimes it gets portrayed the other way."

Guy's guy
Edwards was taking a walk with his fiancée, Kate Downey, last week when the driver of a passing car recognized him.

"He like stopped, backed up and went, 'Oh, my god! It is Carl Edwards,'" Edwards recalled. "Then he takes off. You can hear him whooping and hollering all the way."

Before Edwards burst into Cup notoriety in 2005, he didn't have time to enjoy such attention or long walks. He was so busy trying to get to the top that he seldom stopped to relish what he had achieved.

"He gets mobbed when he goes out now," Osborne said.

Sometimes Edwards draws attention in the strangest places, such as a stop sign in the middle-of-nowhere Missouri when he was in the backseat of a pickup on his way to a canoe trip.

"This guy is mowing his lawn with this Scotts No. 60 hat on," Edwards said, referring to the sponsor and number of his Nationwide Series car. "I'm all piled up with all of our gear, and we rolled down the window and go, 'Hey!'

"He's like, 'Hold on!' He ran into his house and brought out all of his cars. Right there in the yard, I signed everything. He was like freaking out. That was cool."

That's a side of Edwards that isn't seen at the track.

"He might not appeal to some of the hard-core fans or some of the hard-core drivers in the sport, but the guy loves doing anything," said Johnson, who has gotten to know Edwards while mountain biking. "He loves racing. He loves being athletic. He's kind of a guy's guy."

Johnson understands the misconception some might have of Edwards. People often don't get to see the fun-loving side of Johnson behind the corporate face. He's often called boring, although he's anything but in a car or away from the track.

"I've experienced where it's difficult to have your true self come through," Johnson said. "From the numbers and stuff I've seen, the perception he has from the fans is much better than the situation I've been in over the years.

"His scores and all the different ratings systems that exist out there show him to be well-received by the fans. So I'm not sure if I'm fighting the same battle or have been through the same stuff, but he's learning a lot and made some mistakes, and he's a smart guy."

A star is born
Osborne's voice was calm as he talked Edwards through the final laps of the 2005 fall race at Atlanta.

"It's over when you get to the white flag," he said as Edwards maintained more than a 2-second lead on Jeff Gordon. "You can coast from there."

It was nothing like Edwards' victory at the 1.5-mile track that March, when he literally slid past Johnson coming off the final turn to capture his first Cup victory by the nose of his car.

He had to drive so aggressively over the final laps of that race that he wore his left-rear tire to the point it had little grip, causing owner Jack Roush to issue a request that he let teammate Greg Biffle pass if he got close so Edwards didn't wreck them both.

Afterward, Edwards immediately began calculating in his mind what it would take to overcome Stewart for the title.

"I think we'll still lose by two," he said. "Thirty-six points [a race], we'll win it by a point. Anyway, that's what we're gonna try to do."

Edwards picked up 42 points that day. He said he believes he can do it again Sunday, although he knows Johnson will need to have bad luck not only this week but for a couple of weeks to let him back in contention.

"It's not impossible," he said. "That's our mission."

There's no doubt Edwards has the talent to win the title. He was courted by Joe Gibbs Racing during the offseason after it became apparent two-time Cup champion Stewart would leave for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009.

"He's a great competitor," Joe Gibbs said. "He's got a great heart, and he really has desire to excel. That's kind of what you want in all of your guys."

And if that means Edwards gets a little crazy sometimes, that's OK.

"The guys that are passionate, they get fired up about it, for better or worse," said Gibbs, who has had his share of the worse with Stewart. "Growing up in other sports, it's no different. It's just here if you run into a land mine, it's harder to hide stuff."

Unfortunately for Edwards, both of his land mines were captured on film, the Kenseth incident on television and the confrontation with Harvick by a still photographer.

"He does not like to let things linger," Osborne said. "It's hard for some people to understand that, but it's the best way to be. There's no reason to let things lay and fester into something bigger than they need to be.

He does not like to let things linger. It's hard for some people to understand that, but it's the best way to be. There's no reason to let things lay and fester into something bigger than they need to be.

-- Bob Osborne

"That's why we work so well together. Neither of us will sit still and let something lie. We approach each other directly to the point and make sure both of us are on the same page."

Edwards and Osborne admittedly weren't ready to win a title in 2005. Roush believes they are now.

"My assessment, based on watching him and other rookies that have come into this business under my watch, is he now has the stability and the maturity and the tools to be able to not only do what it takes in a race car, but what he needs to do strategy-wise and emotional-wise to be able to not miss an opportunity," Roush said.

In 2005, Edwards couldn't handle running for second or third. He took huge risks that often put him in trouble. He's not that way anymore.

"Not at Kansas," said Edwards, recalling the "slide" move that sent him into the wall as he slingshot past Johnson. "That was special. That was a calculated risk. I thought I would still make it across the finish line no matter what.

"I still make mistakes. Talladega was a big mistake, but I'm learning."

Edwards probably learned more about himself between the crash at Talladega that left him 29th, the mechanical failure at Charlotte that left him 33rd and the incident with Harvick than he did in his first four Cup seasons combined.

"Sometimes I'm just real, real competitive," he said. "That's the deal. I think that it's almost like you've just got to laugh it off and move on. That's all there is to it. We're here to do jobs, and I really enjoy the racing. That's the most fun thing in the world."

And if 15 years from now Edwards still is racing, still is competitive and still is able to hang out with the same group of friends back home, "I've won."

"You've got to pick a career or hope that you get to be part of a career that gives you some satisfaction," he said. "I think I've got that. At night, when I go to bed, that feels good."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.