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Edwards looking to join elite group with another Southern 500 win

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Edwards looking to join elite group with another Southern 500 win
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Aug 31, 2016, 5:43 PM

The Southern 500 weekend at Darlington Raceway provides the perfect stage for teams and fans to celebrate NASCAR’s roots.

Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Race winner Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Race winner Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Race winner Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Living legends of auto racing beach parade: David Pearson
Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Race winner Regan Smith, Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet celebrates
Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota special throwback scheme

Darlington traces its origins to 1950 when Herb Thomas dominated on a track that initially measured 1.25-miles.

Through two generations of Bakers and Jarretts, the track morphed into its current 1.366-mile length.

That was the track that saw David Pearson win an unparalleled 10 races, though Dale Earnhardt came close with nine victories. 

Fellow Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Fred Lorenzen, Curtis Turner, Cale Yarborough and Terry Labonte also added their names to the win list. 

Among active drivers, Jeff Gordon leads the list with seven Darlington victories. Jimmie Johnson (3) and Greg Biffle (2) are the only other drivers currently on the Sprint Cup tour with multiple wins. 

Going back-to-back

Carl Edwards, the defending winner of last year’s Southern 500, is looking to add his name to that list. After rallying from 32nd midway through that race, Edwards understands the challenges at the Track too Tough to Tame.

“Next to the Coca-Cola 600, the Southern 500, those two together were both the biggest wins of my career,” Edwards said. “But that race, for me, was a really hard fought battle. At one point we were two laps down. We fought back. We didn’t quit. And we made it back up to the front.

“It wasn’t an easy win, it was a special win.” 

Edwards dropped to 39th last year after his crew chief Darian Grubb elected to pit off cycle. With a record 18 cautions in the Southern 500, Edwards worked his way through the field. Over the final 40 laps, Edwards battled Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. He passed the No. 2 Ford with 11 laps remaining for his first Darlington win.

To up his game, Edwards solicited advice from his former Roush Fenway Racing teammates Jeff Burton and Mark Martin and spotter Bobby Hudson on navigating the unique egg-shaped oval. 

A moment he'll never forget the master of Darlington

But his driving lesson with David Pearson around the Lady in Black is one he’ll never forget.  

“We did this media day at Darlington,” Edwards said. “I picked up Pearson at his local airport (Spartanburg, S.C.), flew over to the race track and I remember taking this mental picture, ‘Don’t ever forget this moment.’ 

“Driving through Turns 1 and 2, just kind of goofing off, slow, and I’m driving the Claritan car. I look over and here’s Pearson in the 21 Wood Brothers car with his arm out the window just smiling at me, inside of me. And I’m thinking, ‘I’m at Darlington with Pearson in that car.’ It was like being in a part of history for a moment. 

“It was really cool. He’s a cool guy, man. I can’t imagine what he must have been like when he was younger.” 

Edwards admits the magnitude of the Southern 500 was intimidating early in his career and he over-prepared for the race. Although he finally broke through in his 12th attempt at Darlington, Edwards still remembers the ones that got away. In 2008 and 2011, Edwards settled for second.

2011 loss

The loss to Regan Smith in 2011, after leading 57 laps is one Edwards would like to get back. 

“That one still sticks with me,” Edwards said. “I would have taken him a lot more seriously on old tires. We didn’t know how fast he was going to be. So, I planned on driving right by him once the race restarted — and that’s not how it went. It’s definitely one that got away. 

“I think that was one of those times that season that we ran second — and proved that you could stay out on old tires at that point and make something happen. The sport was kind of changing that that year and you saw a lot more track position. But yeah, (Smith) did a good job. He drove his guts out through (turns) one and two and got us.” 

That season, Edwards finished second seven times — including the last three races in the Chase — and lost the championship on a tie-breaker to Tony Stewart. 

Ironically, Edwards’ throwback paint scheme this weekend will be reminiscent of Stewart’s original Home Depot design — to honor the former JGR racer and three-time champ. 

“It’s really cool since it’s Tony’s last year,” Edwards said. “And I’ve already got my helmet — ready to throw — and everything.”

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