A Star Is Born

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The first thing you notice is the grin. It's big and white and kind of goofy, which is probably more a reflection of his ‘gee, can you believe I'm here?' demeanor than a reflection of what he's really thinking.

We'd seen that smile before, like when he finished third last year at Atlanta while driving a limited NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule for mega-team owner Jack Roush.

Come to think of it, it's hard to remember a time when he wasn't grinning. This guy is just so grateful and happy to be doing what he does for a living, it would take a hard heart to clue him in to the fact there are going to be days when he'll probably wish he'd taken up something like sheep herding or deep-sea fishing.

But how great was it Sunday that Mr. Grins, old 25-year-old Carl Edwards, drove like a man possessed (by the devil no less) to beat the incomparable Jimmie Johnson across the line at that same Atlanta track? Of course the first thing people wanted to see was his signature back flip, the one he'd pulled off just the day before following the Busch Series race in which he'd bested Johnson and fellow top guns Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth.

About that maneuver: You might want to put it on ice, Carl, until you get a little more height. We'd hate to see you sitting on the sidelines due to a misjudged crack on the noggin.

But back to Atlanta. While he'd shown signs that he might be in the hunt, that was mainly due to the stellar pit work of his Bob Osborne-led crew, which consistently got him back on track three or four spots better then he'd left. He came out first off the last caution and quickly was passed by Johnson, and at that point it seemed inevitable that the Las Vegas winner was set to clinch his second consecutive victory.

Edwards might have been the only one thinking “no how, no way.” So he mashed the gas and stiffened his arms and glory hallelujah held on and probably the only thing he didn't do was close his eyes because that would have been dumb. And his Ford wiggled and the back end tried to become the front and FOX broadcaster Darrell Waltrip was screaming about a great Atlanta finish and trying his darndest to tell Edwards to back off and save his tires and his life. Edwards ignored it all and crossed the line ahead of Johnson in less time than it takes to blink your eyes.

And the fans in the stands went nuts. Following the traditional cool-down lap, which Edwards needed to get his heart rate down from around 200 beats a minute, he increased the frenzy when he stopped right out on the track and as his crazed crew drew near climbed up where the window netting locks, took a brief peek over his shoulder and did an airborne dipsy-doodle flop.

Which came after 500 miles of driving that left some of his rivals so flattened they had trouble untying the laces on their shoes.

“There wasn't anything in the world that was going to make me take my foot off that accelerator,” said Edwards, to which one could only nod ‘no kidding.' The guy was obviously driving by the seat of his pants and with his heart because his brain at that point had surely shortcircuited.

After hugging his mom and Roush, whose hat was slightly askew, Edwards finally pulled into victory lane, where he was met by a slightly dazed Johnson, who hadn't strolled over there because he had nothing better to do. Johnson forthrightly congratulated the driver who bested him, as the gentlemanly Johnson is wont to do.

At that moment there was a brief flashback to the media tour, when several hundred members of the broadcast and print tribe visited the Roush shop to face a dais which included Roush, the soon-to-retire-with-many-victories Mark Martin, reigning series champion Kurt Busch, 2003 champion Matt Kenseth and rejuvenated veteran Greg Biffle – all buttoned down in lip-lock mode as if what was going to be said was inscribed on tablets from the mount. And then there was Edwards, smiling to beat the band, seemingly without a care in the world except how to convey he was really, really, really happy just to be there.

And the thought came: What in the world is Mr. Grins doing among this colossus of talent which is equaled only by it's determination to put forth the notion ‘this is serious business?'

No matter now. And if there was anyone happier about his victory than Edwards and his mom, Carol Sterling, who he has stated over and over sacrificed to get him where he is, it was Roush, who said he was more dang excited than he'd ever been, including in 1989 following Martin's first win.

Note to Mark: Don't take it too much to heart. With you having one foot out the door, it's just the natural progression of things.

Then Edwards shows up for his post-race media briefing and calls taking the checkered flag “a surreal moment” and thanks the scribes for writing nice things about him that please his mom. “I know it's gonna get ugly someday,” he adds, still grinning from here to there. “But I can take that, too.”

How can you knock a guy who drives like that and wins like that and remembers to thank everybody including his mom and the whole time he's just showing those huge pearly whites?

I sure can't. Don't want to, either. Surreal moments are too hard to come by in these uncertain times. Carl Edwards, go forth. And keep winnin' and grinnin'.

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