CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Carl Edwards spent six-plus months under scrutiny for scouring the job market and looking for the best possible deal.
His free agency dominated the NASCAR rumor mill all summer, and Edwards couldn't escape the scrutiny despite numerous pleas to be allowed to handle his business affairs in private. Then a funny thing happened: Edwards signed a contract extension with Roush Fenway Racing and nobody paid any attention to him at all.
His days of peace and tranquility are officially over.
Edwards' gutted out a fifth-place finish in Sunday's race at Kansas to claim sole possession of first in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings. With six races remaining, he holds a one-point lead over Kevin Harvick with five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson sitting four points back.
It's the first time in eight weeks that Edwards has been the points leader, a position he held for 16 of the 26 "regular season" races. But his time on the top was plagued by speculation about both his future and the havoc a prolonged free agency could wreak on his title chances.
Everybody wondered just how the points leader could even be considering leaving Roush, the team that gave him his break in NASCAR and now had him in championship contention. Then came the musings of four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who maybe was publicly tweaking Edwards when he surmised in late July that dragging out the job hunt would only hurt Edwards' title chances.
And if Edwards decided to leave? Well, Gordon said he could kiss the Sprint Cup goodbye.
A mere six days later, months of waffling between Roush and Joe Gibbs Racing abruptly ended with Edwards signing an extension to stay with Roush. The intrigue over, he quietly faded from the headlines as attention turned to just about everybody else.
It didn't help that, three races after announcing his new contract, an engine issue led to a 36th-place finish at Michigan and dropped him to third in the standings. Just like that, he was an afterthought to Kyle Busch, Gordon, Johnson, Kevin Harvick and the suddenly streaking Brad Keselowski.
But a closer examination shows that Edwards should have always been on the radar, and any team that dared to overlook him is paying for it now.
Edwards has yet to finish outside the top-10 in the seven races since Michigan, and five of those events ended with top-five finishes. He's the only one of the 12 Chase drivers to notch a top-10 in each of the first four Chase races, and he's shown an ability to overcome every obstacle thrown his way.
Two weeks ago at Dover, his first speeding penalty of the season dropped him to 28th in the field and Edwards recovered to finish third. At Kansas, the wrong setup put him in trouble early — something Edwards recognized in the opening laps of the race.
Crew chief Bob Osborne set out to make the needed changes, work that required a lengthy stop on pit road and dropped Edwards as far back as 25th. He was two laps down at one point, in danger of a horrific day at his home track, until late cautions put him in position to pull out a miracle.
Edwards seemed as surprised as anyone when he crossed the finish line in fifth.
"I cannot believe we finished fifth, it feels like a win," Edwards said. "That is the most we have done with a car that wasn't capable of winning, ever."
Next up for Edwards is Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he won the $1 million All-Star race back in May. It was his only Cup victory at Charlotte, as he's winless in 13 previous points-paying races. In fact, the track has not been all that good to Edwards, who has one finish above 12th in his last six Cup races.
So there was no time to celebrate Sunday's achievement. The moment Osborne saw Edwards after the race, they immediately began their strategy for Charlotte.
"That is the first thing Bob and I talked about when he got over to the car, making sure we don't make the same mistake at Charlotte," Edwards said. "That place has been a little difficult for us. We have been very hit and miss there."
He probably can't afford anything but a hit on Sunday.
Johnson has hit his stride, winning his first Chase race of the season Sunday to give him momentum as he heads into Charlotte, where he's a six-time winner. And Harvick, winner of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte the week after Edwards' victory in the All-Star race, has a strong track record at the remaining race tracks.
But Edwards is no slouch, either, and staying within striking distance could be all that he needs to do to win his first Cup title. He fell too far behind Johnson in 2008, his nine-win season, and victories in three of the final four races of the year still left him 69 points shy of the championship.
That was his last legitimate title run, and the struggles that followed in 2009 (no wins, 11th in points) and 2010 (two wins, fourth in points) played a large role this summer in Edwards investigating if Roush Fenway was truly the best place for his long-term future.
However he got to his final decision to stay with Roush doesn't matter now. What's important is that he held his team together during the free agency process when everyone else seemed to believe they'd falter.
Now, after making it through the first month of the Chase unscathed, there's no reason to believe he's not going to be a contender all the way down to the wire.