When the news broke over the summer that Carl Edwards was going to leave Roush Fenway Racing at the end of this season and join his former RFR team mate Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015, a lot of people duly wrote off his chances of featuring in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup Series championship. That's despite the fact that Edwards has twice finished as runner-up in the Chase in 2008 and 2011, the latter being when he tied on points with Tony Stewart and lost out on a wins tiebreaker.
Instead, with one race left before the cut-off that will decide which eight drivers will be in the third phase of the new-format play-offs, Edwards is looking like he'll be one of the ones making it through while other pre-Chase favourites such as Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and even Matt Kenseth might be exiting the title battle prematurely.
Yet while he's doing well in the points, Edwards is by no means guaranteed a spot in the Eliminator 8 round. An 18th place finish in this weekend's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway would put him over the top and secure him one of the precious transfer spots, but if that sounds easy then it's really anything but in this restrictor plate race where no one is safe from being caught up and wiped out in an early huge multi-car wreck that could easily undo an entire year's hard work at a single stroke.
"18th or better sounds simple to do, but it is not at Talladega," agreed Edwards. "I think Talladega obviously poses bigger risks than most race tracks and that's because you are literally in a pack of cars and one mistake or one part failure on any of those cars could affect you. You're not just subject to your own mistakes or own problems, but in a pack like that it makes it very easy to finish 40th even if you're doing everything right. It's a tougher race to guarantee a good finish."
In the previous years, the old format of the Chase - which was a straight ten-race 'mini-season' among 12 drivers to decide the title - the tendency was for drivers to try to stay out of trouble, often by dropping away from the pack and cruising around at the back, safe in the knowledge that they could make up any points shortfall next weekend if necessary.
The new elimination-round format has changed all that - next week will be too late when drivers need to ensure that they lock up enough points at Talladega to progress into the next round, or else crash out of the title battle. With the exception of the two drivers already through thanks to having won at Kansas (Joey Logano) and Charlotte (Kevin Harvick), there can be no safe play this weekend at 'Dega.
"I'm not sure yet," said Edwards when asked how he was going to play this weekend's visit to the 2.66-mile superspeedway. "We'll have to see where we qualify and how the starting line-up shapes up. If we're out front, we definitely want to stay there. If we're in the middle, I don't know how aggressive I would want to be early on. We would basically have to watch where our competition is running and try not to get caught up in the race too much and focus on the fact that we have an opportunity to advance to the next round based on our good finishes at Kansas and Charlotte.
"If it looks like other guys are playing it safe and they're taking less risk, then we would probably have to follow suit just so we don't do something foolish," he admitted. "The way the format is we feel like we have a big opportunity, our whole Fastenal team, to make it to this next round, especially with everything going on and the craziness that has happened, we feel like this is perfectly suited to us and we don't want to give that opportunity up."
Edwards said that he had been surprised at just how much the introduction of the new Chase format had already managed to shake things up in 2014: "I didn't really know what to expect and it's about as chaotic as I would have guessed it to be," he said.
"The idea of a format like this caught me off guard," Edwards added. "The only thing I knew when they announced this format is that Homestead would be extremely interesting.
"If you look at the guys who could potentially be out of it after this week, historically those guys would be way up in front of the points, so I think it has shaken things up," he continued. "It has definitely taken the season and taken it from a full season down to a ten race season [and] now it's a series of three-race seasons. There's no place to hide if you have a bad race with this format.
"I know it's definitely a paradigm shift from the way I grew up racing. It's totally different, but without this format I don't know that you'd see the intensity level or the excitement that you saw the other night at Charlotte."
That was a reference to the heated post-race altercations between Keselowski, Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, which has set up concerns that some of those involved will be in a wrecking mood this Sunday at Talladega as they pursue retribution for what happened during and after last weekend's race.
"I think that everyone will go to Talladega and be very professional," insisted Edwards. "I hope that you wouldn't see any on-track retaliation at Talladega. It's just such a fast place and there's so much potential for collateral damage with other cars and other teams and I have a feeling, my gut feeling, is that Talladega will go pretty smoothly.
"I think once we get to Martinsville and some other place, I think if there are any hard feelings over stuff that's happened during the year or even last week, I think that's where you'll see most of that dealt with."
In any case, Talladega is tough enough to survive without all the added shenanigans of retaliation and Chase progression loaded on.
"This is a zero sum game and specifically between certain guys," said Edwards. "Everyone is gonna be very aware of who they have to beat and by how many positions, so I think there will be a lot of stuff like that that goes on this race. I think it will be almost impossible for the competitors to keep up with. Hopefully the broadcasters can do a good job of keeping up with it so the fans can see what's going on, but it's too hard to guess how it's gonna go right now."
Edwards is just hoping that he's not one of the drivers left standing without a place when the music stops on Sunday afternoon, because he would dearly love to bring a very long and happy association with Jack Roush and the RFR team to the best possible conclusion before his move to JGR - by clinching that Cup championship at long last after so many near-misses
"We've been doing this a long time together. I've been at Roush Fenway for almost 12 years, so I feel like it's family," he said. "Yeah, we're going different ways at the end of the year, but we all want to win this thing. So far it's gone great. My hope is that we win it and we're able to shake hands and move forward as friends."