Expectations high for Edwards' second Cup season

The thing about surprising people is usually you only get to do it once. Afterward, excellence just becomes status quo.

That's the lesson an increasingly competitive NASCAR Nextel Cup field will try to teach Carl Edwards, who caught everyone -- even his team owner -- off guard while winning four races and falling just 35 points shy of claiming a title in his first full season on stock car racing's biggest stage.

"It can be difficult when the expectations get so high," said Jimmie Johnson, who's also familiar with soaring expectations after notching three wins and finishing fifth as a rookie in 2002. "But you can't think of it like that. You just have to remember what got you there in the first place and show up and work hard every day."

Edwards is already aware of the changes around him. You don't win one of the most exciting races of the year, inching out Johnson no less for an early-season win at Atlanta, without garnering some attention. Indeed, you don't conduct yourself with the humility Edwards did off the track without gaining some measure of affection, and then introduce a little flash with post-victory backflips without amassing some measure of stardom.

You just don't sustain championship-caliber performances while running full schedules in two different NASCAR divisions -- Cup Series and Busch Series -- without gaining some measure of fame.

Indeed, it took less than half of a season, with two backflips completed in the Cup Series and three more in the Busch Series, for Edwards' support to begin to swell. Even die-hard fans who long had rooted for other racers enjoyed watching Edwards take a checkered flag. The raw emotion with which the kid climbed out of the car and the energy he put into the backflips were infectious.

By the time Edwards made last year's Chase, he was NASCAR's "It" boy. And by the time he tied teammate Greg Biffle for second-most points on the year, having clinched two more victories to finish out the season, he was like a Beatle in some NASCAR circles.

The changes weren't at first obvious to the Missouri native, though.

It started with that unshakable feeling of dozens of eyes on him whenever he was running errands or standing in lines at stores. Then there was the sensation of being watched at the airport, and not just by security cameras. Certainly, the funny stares he'd get while driving around town during the offseason were new. And finally, it culminated at a stoplight about two months ago, when he was getting looks from the car next to him.

"Why are these people staring at me?" Edwards wondered, only to be interrupted in thought: "Hey, Carl!" the passengers screamed, and broke into laughter.

"I get recognized a lot more," Edwards said, "which is a lot of fun. I have fun with it. It's kind of wild to me."

But with the new-found popularity comes added responsibility. Edwards is no longer the new kid on the block. And in just his second full season of Cup racing, his team and fans no longer set their goal at making the 10-driver Chase for the Nextel Cup at the end of the season. No, you don't just break onto the scene and turn the Series on its ear and then regress to previous expectations. Edwards isn't expected to compete for a title anymore. He's looked upon to win it.

"There's definitely more pressure, I guess," Edwards said, "but I don't really allow myself to feel [the pressure]."

That's what many have said before.

Indeed, Kevin Harvick began a recent trend of placing increased expectations on rookies when he exceeded all expectations and helped heal the deepest of wounds after the death of a legend. Dale Earnhardt died in the first race of the 2001 season, and from Race No. 2 onward it was Harvick's job to carry the torch. He completed his obligation to the Busch Series, winning that division's championship while still managing to win two races at the Cup level and finish ninth in points -- an accomplishment all the more heralded because he did it while competing in one less race than the rest of the field.

The pressure was unimaginable on the then-25-year-old. The next season, he managed one victory but finished a lowly 21st in the standings.

"If we can make it through last year at RCR, we can make it through anything and this is a little speed bump going through the parking lot at 15 miles an hour," Harvick said at the time, stressing the importance of shutting all outside factors out and concentrating on the car and on races.

While Harvick struggled as a sophomore, two new frosh burst onto the scene. Johnson with his three wins and fifth-place finish didn't even claim rookie of the year. That honor went to Ryan Newman, who won two fewer races and finished one spot lower than Johnson, but compiled more top fives and top 10s. Newman was pegged by prognosticators to be the first since Earnhardt to win a title after claiming rookie of the year. Johnson was expected to be among Newman's fiercest competition for that honor. But in 2003, while Johnson did manage to claim runner-up to champion Matt Kenseth, Newman finished more than 300 points out in sixth.

Certainly, Newman's was more than a respectable campaign for a second-year driver, but he was nevertheless faced with questions about what went wrong.

"You can't blame it on high expectations. … We've had our failures this year, and that's taken a lot of points away from us, or however you want to word it," Newman said late that season. "To me, to be a [champion], you've got to have everything."

That's precisely where Edwards now finds himself -- expected to bring everything to the table and leave victorious every week. No longer will he be lauded for anything short of championship effort. Still, the Roush Racing phenom is undeterred. He believes he can keep pace with second-year expectations, if for no other reason, because he's too stubborn to miss a step and he's having too much fun to stop and feel the pressure.

"I truly believe that if we run poorly this season, which we could run terribly, it could happen -- it happens all the time -- that it won't be because my head is not in the right place. … I think it would be naive to think I would let something go that I've worked so hard for," Edwards said. "Not to say that it won't be a little bit difficult. I'm aware -- boy, you could just ask my mom how difficult I was to deal with over Christmas just because of all the people calling and all the stuff people expect. But if there's one thing that I feel I excel at, it's being single-minded and focused.

"I'll be damned if I let anything get in the way of us having a good year and me performing."

In fact, Edwards doesn't even view this season as his sophomore year in racing. He's looking at it as if it's a continuation of his first, incredibly successful run with the big boys.

"I was thinking about that last night -- just how to mentally prepare for the season -- and I'm trying to not think of it as a new season," he said. "I'm just trying to think of it as a break from [last year's final race at] Homestead to [this year's first race at] Daytona and we're just continuing with what we were doing last year. I feel really good."

To that end, Edwards will change little this year about his approach to racing. Just like last season, he'll run both Cup and Busch races. And just like last season, he'll find time to race in other events as much as possible -- even if it does keep team owner Jack Roush's blood pressure up.

"I'm telling you, I love riding dirt bikes," said Edwards, who found time to run a local race in Volusia County in Florida, between preseason testing at Daytona. "I love going and racing dirt cars whenever I have the chance. I'm not going to stop doing that just for fear of getting hurt or something. I think that's part of what gives a guy an edge -- driving different stuff. I think it's cool to see the state of racing at the local level and get a fresh look at it every once in a while."

And despite the hectic schedule created by racing so much, Edwards will focus himself on that single-minded goal for 2006: Winning a Nextel Cup championship.

"I write lists of what I need to do for the day," Edwards said, "and on my list today is to take 30 minutes and focus on the things that are important."

The focus he brings to the track and the care-free whimsy with which he conducts himself off the track, his teammates insist, will help Edwards keep pace with one of the most demanding races he'll face in his life -- the race between expectations and reality.

"I'm sure Carl will do great," his teammate Kenseth said. "Last year, I think he won four Cup races and five Busch races. So Carl obviously has a lot of natural talent and he's pretty smart and does the right things at the right time. I don't see him slowing down, that's for sure."

"I would expect great enthusiasm and incredible intensity," teammate Mark Martin added. "That's what I would expect and I guarantee you you'll get that."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com