CHICAGO – So much has been made this season about how Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to win this year’s Sprint Cup championship not only for himself, but also as a parting gift for crew chief Steve Letarte.
Letarte is leaving Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the season to join NBC as a NASCAR analyst in 2015.
But there’s another driver in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup that is equally focused on giving the biggest parting gift he can to someone who, had it not been for his faith and believe in Edwards’ talent and ability, Cousin Carl knows all too well he would not be where he’s at today in the world of NASCAR.
Of course, Edwards is talking about team owner Jack Roush. It was Roush who discovered Edwards racing on Midwest short tracks in and around his native Columbia, Mo.
It was Roush that gave Edwards his big break in the Camping World Truck Series.
And then when Jeff Burton left, it was Roush who promoted Edwards to the Sprint Cup Series – and the rest is history.
There admittedly were some initial hard feelings between the pair when Edwards told Roush a few months back that he would not leaving the RFR stable for a new opportunity with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015.
To put it mildly, Jack did not take the news very well at first.
But now, Edwards’ pending departure, as well as veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig’s plan to step down at season’s end and into more of a consultancy role, Edwards and Roush are determined to make their final season together a championship-winning season.
“We know that when Homestead’s over, that’s it, this chapter will be closed,” Edwards said. “In a way, it’s kind of neat to see everybody rally around and want to go do this when it’s our last shot at it.”
In a way, Edwards is looking to complete some unfinished business from three years ago. He gave Tony Stewart everything he could handle in the 2011 Chase, even tied Stewart for the points lead after the season finale at Homestead.
But Stewart ultimately won his third career Cup crown, while Edwards fell short of his first, by virtue of a first tiebreaker: Stewart had five wins to just one for Edwards.
“That whole year, we were very good,” Edwards said. “(Then-crew chief) Bob Osborne was on his game. We were doing a real good job with our strategy, our pit stops, my restarts. We were fast enough that I could race right at the edge without making mistakes and perform real well.
“That’s the same thing this year … and you have to do that for 10 races. You have to be perfect with this format.”
While new opportunities and different ways of doing things await in 2015 for Edwards at his soon-to-be new team, Joe Gibbs Racing, Edwards is putting all his effort into rewarding Roush for everything he’s done for him over the years.
“I think there’s three reasons our team could do well,” Edwards said. “The first one is our pit crew is very solid, we’re very good, I don’t think we’ll make mistakes, we can beat people there.
“(Second) Jimmy Fennig is as good or better than any crew chief that’s ever been on top of the box with calling the race, so I think we will get the best finishes possible.
“(Third) I believe my experience in the Chase, the things I’ve gone through, I think that I’m going to be able to do a really good job of not making mistakes on the racetrack. Those are the three reasons why I think we’re going to be good.”
But, there is a caveat to all that, Edwards concedes.
“The thing we really need is we just need more speed,” Edwards said. “If we can keep working at the direction we’re working and three, four races in we’re still in the hunt and we start getting faster, then I think we can be a real threat for the championship – but we have to do all four things really well.”
And even though Edwards, Fennig and Roush will all go in different directions at season’s end, they’re kind of like the Three Musketeers heading into the Chase:
One for all and all for one.
“I’ve been really surprised in a good way at how little impact my announcement of leaving has made,” Edwards said. “With our day-to-day stuff, the meetings, the way we work together at the racetrack, nothing has changed.
“I think that says a lot of the professionalism at Roush Fenway Racing. … The work is there and the desire to win is there. Every one of my crew guys, we’ve all talked about it. Everyone’s on board.
“I think with Jimmy Fennig announcing his retirement, it kind of puts us all in the same boat, so to speak. We all know this is the last year we’re going to do this together, so let’s just make it a good one.”
Follow me @JerryBonkowski