By MARTY SMITH / March 9, 2006
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter, a vibrant 60-something known well for donning sweater vests and blazing Salem Lights, moseyed into his Daytona Beach office one morning last month and noticed a peculiar picture tacked to the wall opposite his desk.
His head was positioned atop a sinewy frame of shredded muscle.
"It was great, but I've never even dreamed of having a body like that!" Hunter howled. "But it's nice of Carl to work so hard for my benefit."
Carl, as in Edwards.
If you're a NASCAR fan and have so much as a faint pulse, you've seen Edwards' ridiculous physique on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. Dude is ripped.
Quite honestly, this very column is Edwards' biggest fear. He chuckled when I called to bust his chops about the David impression. But he also requested I express his concern that the photograph would be viewed as shameless self-promotion.
He wants it to speak for itself, just hopes it doesn't say, "Hey, look at me." It wasn't done out of haughtiness or pompousness. That wasn't the intention at all.
"Knowing Carl, as laid back as he is -- he just doesn't care
, so it wasn't meant to be cocky
. Not at all," said Jimmie Johnson, who works out with Edwards on occasion. "It wasn't meant to be any sort of statement.
"But honestly, I hope it has that effect. He's into training. That's him. That's his dedication. I respect him a lot for that. He's a little naïve if he thinks, 'Don't look at me,' though. If you have a body like that, rock it, man."
Edwards arrived at the photo shoot fresh from a morning workout, unaware he'd be asked to disrobe. The presumption was the typical fire-suit garb; long underwear at the very least. ESPN had other intentions.
"They were like, nope, we want to really show you're in shape," Edwards said, "so I took my shirt off. A girl sprayed some stuff on me, it wasn't much. Then they just said they wanted something athletic. So that was my athletic pose, I guess."
Ten shutter snaps later he was done. Initially Edwards was apprehensive, but upon further thought decided his reasoning was weak.
"The only reason I wouldn't do it, is it's not common, and that's not a good reason," he said. "It was pretty cool actually. The guys in the shop were giving me trouble, but it wasn't too embarrassing.
"I hardly ever wear a shirt in the summertime, anyway. That's just how I roll."
Edwards admits he's signed a fair amount of magazines, but claims there hasn't been much reaction. I beg to differ. There must be 10 copies of that magazine floating around my gym. The soccer moms are ga-ga. My gym is full of NASCAR fans. I answer several questions on a daily basis. I never thought I'd answer more questions about a shirtless man than one accused of cheating. Then it happened.
Moving along ...
"Everyone's been really cool about it," Edwards said. "Casey Mears told me he thought it was cool because he gets tired of telling people drivers are athletes. That's cool."
That raises the question. Does Edwards' appearance help answer a question long thought unanswerable? Are drivers athletes?
Carolina Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker hasn't seen the ESPN cover, says he doesn't need to.
"No doubt, man. Hands down NASCAR drivers are athletes," Rucker said. "In football, being athletic, running and jumping, people see that. People don't see what they go through in that car.
"I know a few drivers, and all of them have trainers and work out for endurance and strength. There's no question about their athleticism."
"Carl's the extreme of the sport for someone that's in shape," Casey Mears said. "I don't think being that in shape is absolutely necessary, as chiseled as he is. But it sends a great message that a good 75 or 80 percent of the field works really hard to stay in shape."
Who knew NASCAR drivers were so devoted to personal health? That's not stereotypical NASCAR. That's not Busch Light and Junior Johnson pork rinds.
Sure, we've heard Mark Martin is a workout buff, and that drivers are paying closer attention to the importance of a healthy lifestyle, but Edwards looks like a free safety.
"He's a freak," Mears said. "I tell him he's Hulk Hogan."
"Carl should be proud of that," Hunter said. "He's in shape, works out, and if Carl Edwards isn't proof that NASCAR drivers are athletes I don't know what is.
"His picture on the cover of ESPN The Magazine is a great example of the times changing. Carl Edwards is the driver of today and the driver of tomorrow. He is where we're going, and is setting a pretty high bar."
Johnson agrees Edwards is the poster boy for NASCAR's newfound nutrition, but says he is by no means a trendsetter.
"From the moment I've been in Cup, in the last five to eight years, the physical aspect is very important," Johnson said. "Look at Bobby Labonte. Look at DJ. Those guys are always in the gym. There's a lot of people that understand how important it is to stay in shape. Carl's just yolked up."
Edwards' inspiration can be found just across the Roush Racing campus.
"Mark Martin is the first guy that inspired me to work out," he said. "I watched this show
about how Mark works out, I was like 15 years old or something, and thought, 'Man, I can do that to be a little better.'
"I thought I was in shape, but Mark Martin, at the gym the other day, he was telling me about his ab workout. That dude showed me his abs and I was like, 'There is no way I'll ever have abs like that.' He's made for that cover.
"You don't have to work out to be a race-car driver, but I think it helps me. These drivers are some of the toughest dudes there are. No matter how much they go to the gym they're as tough as there is."
Tony Stewart is a prime example. He's the best driver NASCAR has to offer. He is not a workout buff. He tried; spent thousands of dollars on exercise equipment late last season with the intention of coming back this year in tip-top shape.
Knowing this, Hunter just had to get a jab in on his old buddy.
"Seeing Carl's picture on that magazine should make Tony want to use that equipment he bought," Hunter said, again laughing heartily.
"There's some people that don't look after their health and are still real fast, but being healthy and in shape, not only helps you with endurance and strength, but also if you get in a bad accident your body can handle the impact better," Mears said.
"Staying in shape and working out isn't something a race-car driver
has to do, and Edwards'
cover sends a great message for all of us."
And that message is neither pompous nor conceited.