The day after Carl Edwards finished second in the 2011 race for the Sprint Cup championship in the closest battle in NASCAR history, the predictable analyses could be heard all around the sport.
Edwards and his team had poured so much into the title chase (only to fall painfully short) that he couldn’t bounce back from the hurt to challenge for the next season’s championship -- that’s how the talk went.
I’ve worked on being a more consistent driver that my team can depend on.
It was a familiar scenario, after all. Denny Hamlin had been stung by the same concept only a year earlier. After pursuing Jimmie Johnson in a frantic -- and ultimately unsuccessful -- run for the 2010 championship, Hamlin sagged to a ninth-place points finish in 2011.
It was the so-called “hangover” effect.
Edwards was ready to attack that line of thinking, however. In the days following his epic battle with ultimate 2011 champion Tony Stewart, Edwards often described how he viewed Sprint Cup racing as a continuum, as a string of events in a career, not as segmented single seasons. He would be ready, he said, to strongly pursue the championship again this season. There would be no slump, no loss of direction or sag in inspiration.
Now, at the beginning of a hot summer that will determine the dozen drivers who will have a shot at the 2012 championship, Edwards is riding around the bubble of Chase qualifying. His season has been up, and it has been down.
“There are times that are terrible and times you feel like things are wonderful and going great,” Edwards said. “It made me realize that what we’re doing works. We need to keep doing what we’re doing. If we can produce that same effort every year, we’ll win -- a lot.
“There are a lot of trophies from last year we should have had. There were four or five races where I feel like we had the car to beat and people got us.
“After last year, I feel a lot of confidence if we just do that we’ll win.”
In other words, Edwards sees the approach he and his Roush Fenway Racing team have chosen as one that will carry them to another championship challenge. Although race victories have been elusive, it’s the long run that counts.
“It’s not about winning the battle,” Edwards said. “It’s about winning the war. We damn near won the championship (in 2011) just by doing what we thought was the right thing to do.
“Let me put it this way -- I don’t think another crew chief or driver, given our set of tools, could have done better. I think Bob (crew chief Bob Osborne) did a really good job. I can honestly say I didn’t make a lot of mistakes. And, in the past, I have. I’ve really screwed things up.
“I’ve worked on being a more consistent driver that my team can depend on. That’s the best I can do. Trust me. I want to win more than most people realize. I’ve very competitive.”
The drive through the summer will be about stacking up points, Edwards said, unless the pressure to win becomes foremost.
“We’ve got to be getting more points,” he said. “If we have a flat tire or a wreck, we’re going to be in trouble soon. Then maybe our strategy might be different. We might have to say, to hell with it and just go for wins and get the wild card. I respect the danger we’re in of falling out.”
Edwards said his team’s result card is not indicative of how the season’s performances have gone.
“I can’t describe how competitive it is,” he said. “If you look at our 99 team and our situation, our teammates (Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle) are leading, one and two. We’re outside of the Chase right now, and it’s not because we haven’t run as well as those guys. We have not been able to put together everything.
“Luck has been a big factor, but we haven’t been able to put it together, and if we have a couple of bad races, it could be really, really ugly, so these races are very important. We have to run well, so the pressure is on, which is kind of fun in a way.
“I think it was last year at this point in the season we were leading or close to leading and there was really no pressure. We just had a win, we won the All-Star Race, and we were cruising, so this is like a good workout before a big game. We’ve got to keep the pedal down and go.”
It will be about extending the team’s quality performances with no thought of the sour end to last season, Edwards said.
“If I felt there was a hangover from last year or we were down-and-out because we didn’t win, I’d tell you guys that we have to get our game faces on,” he said. “But we really are, I think, doing a good job, and I don’t feel like anyone over there is ashamed of what we did last year or anything like that. It’s just plain bad luck.
“At the same time, we still have to run better, but I don’t feel like it’s because of last year.”