Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Carl Edwards' legacy at Martinsville Speedway on the line today

MARTINSVILLE - The incident is four years old, but it endures on YouTube and in pictures: Carl Edwards cocking his right arm, his hand balled up in a fist, his intent seemingly clear.

Edwards was going to sock Matt Kenseth in the face.

Right there on pit road at Martinsville Speedway, 15 minutes after the race had ended.

And then he didn't.

Edwards grinned, turned, and walked away, leaving his teammate stunned.

Kenseth says he recently saw a photo of the near-punch.

"First of all, I'm glad he just cocked it and didn't fire it, because that would have hurt," Kenseth said Friday. "I might still be laying out there somewhere."

Four years later, the Sprint Cup series is once again at Martinsville. In a figurative sense, Edwards has that fist drawn back again - this time, as the leader of the points standings with four races to go.

Will he unleash the knock-out blow today?

That's the biggest question heading into today's Tums Fast Relief 500, and frankly, it's kind of refreshing to get a chance to talk about it. The story lines at this historic racetrack haven't changed too much over the past few years.

They've been:

1. Jimmie Johnson owning the place;

2. Whether somebody can ever snag the deed from Hendrick Motorsports;

3. Whether Denny Hamlin has overtaken Hendrick Motorsports as the king of this track.

But then something interesting happened here in the spring: Somebody else won.

Kevin Harvick outran Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final laps to take the checkered flag, breaking a nine-race streak in which the Martinsville winner was either Johnson or Hamlin.

Today's event feels as wide open as it has in years. Johnson remains the Las Vegas favorite at 5-to-1, but he's got close company in Harvick, Hamlin and Jeff Gordon (all at 6-to-1) and Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch (each at 7-to-1).

Edwards is 18-to-1. And that seems about right.

He wasn't much of a factor here in the spring, limping home 23rd. His average finish at Martinsville is 16.9. Statistically, that makes it the third-most difficult track for Edwards behind Talladega (20.3) and Daytona (17.9).

He admits that this place has baffled him over the years.

"A lot of times, we finish practice and we go, 'OK, we're not that bad. Everything is gonna work,'" Edwards said. "And then it just turns into 500 laps of really, really tough work."

So nobody's going to wager a lot on Edwards winning here today, or even building much on his 14-point edge over Kenseth. Then again, few could have expected to see that incident unfold on pit road four years ago, either.

That moment helped change the perception of Edwards. No longer was he just that back-flipping beefcake with the Madison Avenue smile. He was a competitor with an angry side, too.

Now he wants a title - and is in a prime spot to get it.

"It's pretty blissful for me right now," he said, when asked about leading the standings. "It's nice. I've been doing this just long enough now to realize how great any advantage is."

A successful run today would set Edwards up well for his first championship. He's a three-time winner at Texas, the next stop on the circuit.

At Phoenix, he's got nine top-10 finishes in 14 starts.

He's won twice in seven events at Homestead (including last fall), where the champion will be crowned Nov. 20.

Still, Edwards could render that finale moot. It's not as though he's never had a good day at Martinsville. He scored a pair of top-10 finishes last season. In the fall of 2008 - the year Edwards finished runner-up for the points title - he rolled home third here.

If he should have a similar run today? We could forget about that 2007 punch as being his Martinsville legacy.

The story would be the one he landed in 2011 that flattened all his rivals.

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