As Tony Stewart celebrated his 2005 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, NBC interviewed Carl Edwards as he reflected on his just-completed first full season of competition at NASCAR's top level. It had been a successful year, with Edwards winning four times - including a season-sweep at the Atlanta Motor Speedway - and a tie for second in the standings with Greg Biffle, though Biffle won the tiebreaker on the strength of six wins. Stewart beat Edwards - and Biffle - by 35 points, a margin that easily could have been overcome if not for some early season mistakes.
The Missouri native, one never lost for confidence, congratulated Stewart but vowed that "next year" he and his No. 99 team would be the champions.
Alas, 2006 saw Edwards go winless. He picked up three victories in 2007 but was never a serious title threat after a crash in the third Chase event of the year at Kansas. He won a series-high nine races in 2008 but was denied the title by an accident he triggered at Talladega and a mechanical failure at Charlotte one week later. In 2009, Edwards was again held out of victory lane. He nearly went winless again in 2010 before triumphing at Phoenix and Homestead to close out the season.
Edwards has won just once since taking that season-ending win last year, but with just four races remaining, it appears that "next year" may have finally come for the No. 99 team.
Entering this weekend's Tums Fast Relief 500 at the Martinsville Speedway, Edwards holds a 14-point margin - effectively 14 finishing positions - on teammate Matt Kenseth. Brad Keselowski sits 18 markers back, while Tony Stewart is 19 points off the lead. Kevin Harvick is fifth, 26 points back. Everyone else is 40 points - nearly a full race worth - or more behind Edwards, which includes five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson.
If Edwards can avoid trouble this weekend at a track that has not been kind to him, nor Kenseth over the years - they nearly came to blows in view of Speed TV cameras after the October 2007 event there - it very well could be the last hurdle he needs to clear en route to the title. After Sunday, the series visits Texas, where he has three wins. Then come return trips to Phoenix and Homestead, where he won last year.
Getting through Martinsville could be a battle for each of the hopeful champions. Harvick won in April - a performance he probably needs to duplicate if he is to overcome his accident last Sunday in Talladega. Stewart has two wins, but has only three finishes of 13th or better in his last eight runs there. In the last three races he has finished 24th or worse.
Keselowski has just three Martinsville starts, but one of those included a top-10 finish last October. A repeat run combined with struggles for Edwards or Kenseth could help his improbable run towards a championship in just his second full season of Sprint Cup competition become reality.
As for the Roush-Fenway teammates, Kenseth has seven top-10s at Martinsville but an average finish of 15th. Edwards's average is 16.9, with only four top-10s. Kenseth must have a better race than his average, considering the gap to Edwards and the fact that Stewart and Keselowski are breathing down his neck. Edwards, meanwhile, can probably afford a top-15 finish, but not much worse, especially if Harvick, Stewart, or Keselowski take the checkered flag.
With just the three races remaining after this weekend, it is likely that the title picture will be made much clearer by the outcome of Sunday's event. Anything shy of a significant point gain will likely take Harvick out of the mix, while Stewart and Keselowski can scarcely afford to give up any more ground.
The ball is in Edwards' court, however. Given his proven track record at the final three circuits of the season, if he can survive this weekend's race as he did this past Sunday in Talladega, the engraver may can go ahead and get started on this year's Sprint Cup championship trophy.