It had been nearly two years since Carl Edwards had won a Sprint Cup Series event when he pulled into Victory Lane at Phoenix International Raceway just a few short weeks ago.
70 races. That's how long of a drought it had been since Edwards, who had come down to the wire in a heated championship battle with Jimmie Johnson in 2008, had won a race.
It wasn't the first time in his career that he'd faced such a drought—he had also gone from November 2005 to June 2007 without a win—but this one was a little bit tougher to face. Edwards had been running reasonably well throughout this year's Chase, but had nothing to show for it.
Then, Phoenix came. Even better, Homestead followed. Edwards led 192 laps of that event to take his second victory in a row, the first time he'd won consecutive Cup races since late 2008. Edwards went from a guy who hadn't won a Cup event since Homestead in '08 to the hottest driver on the track.
"Why didn't you set the cars up like this before, Bob?" he told crew chief Bob Osborne after the Homestead event. "That was the best performance down the straightaway I've had in a long time."
More than that, it looks like a sign of good things to come in 2011.
Recall the momentum that Denny Hamlin and Mike Ford built up at the end of last season. In four of the year's final five events, he finished third or better. Two of those races—Martinsville and the Homestead season finale—he won. They were the best car on the track for the final month of the season, even though they were no longer in title contention.
Everybody knows what Hamlin did this season. He won a career-high eight races, doubling his 2009 total as well as his career win total, and took four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson in a championship battle all the way down to the final race at Homestead, where luck just wasn't on his side. Hamlin even stole the points lead at Texas.
No, Hamlin didn't win the title, but he had one of the best challenges for Johnson in recent memory.
The momentum that comes from winning late in the season bodes well for Edwards. It means that you're still the series' most recent winner for a good three months. It gives you the confidence to step into the car at Daytona in February and trust that you'll perform. That mindset can only help you over the course of the season.
Now that Roush Fenway Racing has improved on their setups, they should be more competitive in challenging for race wins. Jack Roush blamed faulty front-end geometry for the team's early 2010 struggles, but with three wins in the Chase, and the fourth, fifth and sixth-place points finishers, those problems should be behind them.
And don't forget one more thing—Edwards has challenged Johnson for the title before. 2008 went down to the wire. In fact, if there wasn't a Chase, Edwards would have stolen the title from Johnson's grasp in the season finale—the first time that would have happened since Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992.
With momentum and stronger cars on his side, Edwards looks poised for another run at his first title in 2011. Don't be shocked if he brings it down to the wire again.
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