By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Carl Edwards did just about everything he could to win the Sprint Cup championship last season.
He led the series with nine total victories, had three wins -- including the season finale at Homestead, Fla. -- and five other top-four finishes in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup and was the stiffest competition for Jimmie Johnson.
"I think 2008 was pretty good by any measure," Edwards said. "The wins (and) we scored a lot of points. If we run like that every year, we're going to win a lot of championships. We just have to perform at that level."
But try as hard as he might, Edwards still came up short last season, finishing second as Johnson went on to become only the second man in NASCAR history to win three consecutive championships.
Edwards is determined not to let the same thing happen again in 2009. If he has anything to say about it, Johnson will not win a fourth straight title -- while it will be Cousin Carl who will finally win that elusive first Sprint Cup title.
"We're going to go all out and give it everything we have to win the championship this year," Edwards said. "I mean, we came so close, so very close last year. If it hadn't been for Talladega (finished 29th) or Charlotte (33rd) in the Chase, we probably would have won it. That kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you know what I mean?
"It's tough when someone runs as well as Jimmie did; it's tough to beat him. We showed that, but really I know, other than those two races, we did really, really well. We outperformed that team on the race track at a lot of race tracks. Not to take anything away from them because they did their jobs, but I know that if we replayed those last 10 races five times, we'd win our share of championships. So if we just perform at that level and hope that the luck goes our way a little bit, it could be really good."
Ever since he came to the Cup series in 2004, fans, media and those on other teams quickly have come to learn that an inspired Edwards is a dangerous Edwards. As a result, Johnson had better be on the top of his game for all 36 races -- because you can be sure Edwards will be.
"What he did and what he's done the last three years is really special," Edwards said. "If it comes down to me and him again, I want to beat him really badly. I want to win that championship. I want to know what it feels like. Winning nine races and having a great year and all that is fine, but I'd take a championship with no wins rather than another nine-win season because I really want to accomplish that goal."
You can't be more succinct than that. Perhaps that's why Edwards was the choice among NASCAR media in a preseason poll predicting the likely Cup champ in 2009.
"It doesn't really put any pressure on me that people are picking me and picking us to win the championship," Edwards said. "I always tell people in 2005 at the end of the season going into 2006 I saw a lot of people picked me and that sure didn't work out (Edwards was third in 2005, only to fall to 12th in 2006).
"I've kind of tried not to pay any attention to that. I put a lot of pressure on myself. Once I'm in that race car it's all or nothing, so hopefully that works out and (being picked as the preseason favorite) doesn't change anything, I don't think."
Some drivers might hold a grudge against Johnson or be down on themselves for how last season turned out. Not Edwards, the driver of the No. 99 Roush Racing Ford.
"It doesn't gnaw at me," he said. "Maybe it should, but what's done is done. I did the best things I thought I could do. My crew guys made the best decisions they could make at the time and it worked out really well -- there were just those couple of races that didn't go like we wanted them to. If Jimmie would have had a flat tire here or there ... but it doesn't eat at me because that's how racing or the world works, for that matter."
Coming into Sunday's 51st running of the Daytona 500, Edwards is prepared to temper his aggressiveness until the right time. If he gets too aggressive too early, he could wind up wrecking. The key to success, he said, is merely pacing himself and being patient -- which isn't always easy to do in the closing laps when the 500 becomes a free-for-all.
"It's probably like the difference between a Neil Diamond concert and (heavy metal band) Pantera," Edwards said, laughing. "They're both great, but way different. The first Daytona 500 I was in, I would say about halfway through the race, I'm running around and I was thinking, 'Hey, this is just another race.'
"I had run 14 Cup races before that, came here in 2005 and that was just normal. And then, I think it was the last restart with 15, maybe 18 laps to go or something like that, and I'm telling you, you could see all the fans go crazy, the drivers all of a sudden where they would give somebody three inches before, they were rubbing against them. The energy level goes through the roof, and I think that's the difference."
Edwards would like to harness that energy level, start the season with a win and end it with the Sprint Cup championship. He takes the first step toward both those goals Sunday afternoon.
"Everyone wants to stand there and say, 'We won the Daytona 500,'" Edwards said. "I just can't imagine going to sleep (after the race) and being able to say that. Last year, I put it in my memory bank. After the race, my motorhome was right next to Ryan Newman's.
"He got back from all of the victory lane stuff and walked over there, and literally it was like he was walking on a foot of air. I've never seen a guy with that kind of (pride). I just wanted to stand next to him for a while. He was so pumped up. I want to know what that feels like."
Sunday, you might just get that chance, Cousin Carl.