Forget the fact that Carl Edwards had his overall worst race of the young Sprint Cup Series this past weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Forget the fact that Kevin Harvick is the first driver to win multiple races this year, after winning his second consecutive race this past weekend.
Never mind the fact that Jimmie Johnson is the five-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion. None of those facts matter. The only thing that matters is that Edwards is the man to beat this season. And in eight months, it will be he who is holding the only trophy that matters.
After six races, Edwards sits at second in the standings, trailing only his 2011 nemesis, Kyle Busch. He has scored two pole positions already, and has four top 10 finishes. He was seemingly well on his way to a fifth top-10 earlier in the season at Phoenix, when he was involved in an accident with Busch.
This season has already seen Edwards visit victory lane one time, and post two runner-up finishes. Not too bad for a driver that managed just one top-five in the first 18 races of last season.
Coincidentally, after posting just mediocre results through the first half of the season last year, it was his strong finish and his subsequent hot start to this year that have many buying into the fact that this is definitely his year.
In the final 18 races of 2010, Edwards had just one finish outside the top 20, a 34th place run in Fontana. In the 12-race stretch from Daytona in July through Kansas in October, Edwards had 10 top-10s, and his worst finish was 12th. The best was still yet to come for Edwards though.
Mired in a 70-race winless draught, Edwards scored his first victory in nearly two full seasons after starting from the pole at Phoenix. The following week, in the season's final race of the year at Homestead, Edwards started on the outside pole and scored his second victory in a row.
After being overlooked for the better part of two seasons, Edwards quickly became many experts' 2011 pick to overthrow Johnson as the top tier's champion.
He failed to disappoint, as he opened the season by finishing runner-up to Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500. In fact, had the race been another quarter of a lap longer, Edwards could have easily been the winner, as he was closing fast on Bayne in the final seconds.
Seemingly, in each of the last five seasons, people are questioning whether or not Jimmie Johnson can win the championship. This season, those questions are being asked louder than normal.
Johnson, while still sitting third in the points standings after six races, has yet to win this year, and at times has looked just average. He has only scored top-10s in half of the races, and of all the drivers in the top 20 in points, he only has the 14th-best average starting position.
That kind of mediocrity opens the door for other drivers to step up and take the crown. And Edwards has been the hottest driver over the course of the last eight months.
So, while the season is only one sixth of the way over, it is never too early to start thinking about the championship. It was just three seasons ago that Edwards scored a series-high nine wins, and finished second in the standings.
While he may not be able to match his win total from that season, he will easily score at least four wins this season.
In a season in which there seems to be so much equality among the front-runners in the series, a driver who is consistently near the front, like Edwards has been since last July, will ultimately emerge as the 2011 Sprint Cup Series champion.