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Carl Edwards: Polished, sophisticated

11/17/2011 - NASCAR

MIAMI -- So you want a new face as NASCAR champion? Then let's have a brand-new one, clean shaven all the time, guaranteed -- not the stubbly visage that brings us right back to where we were before Jimmie Johnson's run began.

We've seen Tony Stewart there before, in 2002 and '05. Now my colleague Terry Blount tries to tell you with a straight face that the better champion would be the same ol' same ol'.

Let's have Carl Edwards, a champion NASCAR Nation can be proud of -- even if you don't like him.

I'm certain Edwards would be the most polished and sophisticated champion ever to represent NASCAR to mainstream America -- which is, of course, the primary duty of a Sprint Cup winner.

I say that upon looking back through the decades, all the way back to Richard Petty -- years before Terry ever looked up from the scorecards he was keeping as a baseball writer.

Terry still stereotypes NASCAR champions, so perish the thought -- in his school -- of someone like Edwards, who was heavily exposed to education, polish and aplomb at the University of Missouri.

This, while Edwards was racing on dirt tracks even humbler than what Stewart came from -- so don't say Edwards isn't grass-roots.

He'd show well, from the customary late-night talk show circuit all the way into prime time and the morning shows.

Here's your litmus test, Terry: Could Stewart get through "The View" without a meltdown into impatience and sarcasm?

Uh. I wouldn't want to risk it. Would you?

Edwards, on the other hand, would have Barbara Walters calling him the most charming sports figure of our time. Her audience would become his audience, which is to say, NASCAR's expanded audience.

And that is precisely what is needed from a NASCAR champion now.

A couple of years ago, I saw and heard Edwards play talk show host Larry King like a violin, even as King bombarded him with irrelevant and NASCAR-ignorant questions. That, to me, was Edwards' audition as the man who can bring about sea change in all of America's perceptions of NASCAR.

Sure, Stewart is the rough-hewn guy of gritty substance, and therefore the runaway favorite of the hard-core old-liners among fans.

But that bunch, far as I can tell, has estranged itself from NASCAR anyway. A third reign of Smoke would only scab their wounds, not heal them.

So here's a jump start to NASCAR's long-sputtering push for new fans: Edwards with a lot of mainstream public exposure.

Wait a minute, you say. (And so says Terry.) Hasn't Hinton always said the championship ought to go to the driver with the most race wins? Isn't this a radical departure if not a turnabout?

Why would I champion Edwards, who could win this thing with one race victory, over Stewart, who has four, all of them during the Chase?

Because there's a hidden bonus in an Edwards championship for the old-school folks, who by consensus want the championship format changed. (They're fragmented as to what changes they want, but they all want it changed.)

Do you think for a second that David Letterman and Jay Leno aren't going to ask, first thing, "How could you win a championship by winning only one event [or two events, if he wins at Homestead-Miami on Sunday]?"

Edwards would answer diplomatically about consistency, but you gotta figure the whole issue, that widely exposed, would get NASCAR moving on changes to the format.

With Stewart, they'll jump on a quasi-accomplishment, touting him as "the first owner-driver to win a championship since 1992."

And that, essentially, would be bull. Stewart's winning a championship for a team he walked into, custom-made for him, managed for him by business experts and a de facto branch of mighty Hendrick Motorsports, is a far cry from Alan Kulwicki's towering accomplishment of '92.

Kulwicki kept every shoestring dollar in his head, even calculated and ordered pit stop procedures from the cockpit. Stewart gets into the car and drives. He has no more owner worries on the racetrack than he did with Joe Gibbs Racing for his first two championships.

Edwards is no Kulwicki, either, but at least the bogus comparison would never come up.

Meanwhile, Edwards charms America across the board. You know how he can be in an interview scenario, Terry. You can shred him with your questions, and he still can make you feel as if he's your best friend.

With Smoke, you ask your question and brace for the verbal counterpunch, which could be anything from a backhand slap to an uppercut. That's fine, and fun, within the NASCAR traveling show and media corps. It can backfire if you're slashing egos the size of Letterman's and Leno's -- especially if Letterman has already kissed up to you as a fellow Hoosier.

You know Edwards is going to show up impeccably dressed. Likely as not, Smoke might show up with his shirttail out.

So Stewart leaves NASCAR wide open to the same old public stereotyping: the rough-and-tumble ol' boy, unvarnished. What's new?

What's new about Edwards? Everything nobody thought NASCAR would ever be like.

Just call it the vision thing, Terry.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.