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Year in Review: No Cup driver was more consistent than runner-up Edwards

January 03, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Carl Edwards races Tony Stewart in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami in November, a race that would come down to the final lap to decide the Sprint Cup Series championship.

Year in Review: Despite runner-up finish, Edwards was most consistent in 2011

Carl Edwards candidly admitted he did not want to sit through the end-of-season Sprint Cup Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas earlier this month.

Nonetheless, he not only did so but also forced himself to return to his seat in the grand ballroom of the Las Vegas Wynn hotel for the speech that followed his own. That hasn't always been the case for the second-place finisher at these deals, as they usually shuffle back-stage for media interviews and don't worry much about suffering through the championship acceptance speech by the competitor who accomplished what they couldn't.

"Finishing second is no good. I learned that early on in racing."

--CARL EDWARDS

2011 Statistics

WinsFirst 26Final 10
Top-fives127
Top-10s179
Poles22
DNFs00
Laps Led558345
Avg. Start10.56.4
Avg. Finish114.9

Edwards felt differently about listening to Tony Stewart, who edged him for the 2011 Cup title in a tie-breaker and thus followed him to the dais at the star-studded ceremony in Vegas.

"I think you ought to stay out there and hear what they have to say," Edwards said later of his decision.

That's not to say he enjoyed the experience.

"It's kind of like going to the dentist or going through a surgery that you know you need to have, but you know it's not going to be a whole lot of fun," Edwards said. "I hope it motivates me and inspires me. I didn't expect it to be that difficult to sit through the whole night. But the night was about Tony and I thought I needed to hear what he had to say -- and I thought he was very gracious and said a lot of nice things."

Stewart did indeed compliment Edwards on the second-place season, noting that it came down to the final laps in the stirring season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Edwards finished second in that race as well, as Stewart won for the fifth time in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

One thing Edwards learned -- or at least had reiterated to him again and again in 2011, for he actually learned it long ago -- was that it stings to finish second in races or championship battles.

"It's a lot different, being that close," Edwards said. "It really brings it home that you did not win. When you finish fourth or fifth, you're like, 'Well, that's pretty good. At least we didn't finish sixth.' Finishing second is no good. I learned that early on in racing.

"[Roush Fenway Racing teammate] Matt Kenseth was telling me, 'Hey, there are 41 other guys who would like to take your spot.' I said, 'I don't know about that, Matt. This is not that much fun.' "

Stewart's remarkable championship run overshadowed Edwards' own 2011 season in the end -- but it's worth noting that the season forged by the driver of the No. 99 Ford was remarkable in its own right. No driver or team was more consistent.

In 36 starts, Edwards posted one win, 18 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes. For a guy who hates second place, Edwards sure found himself occupying it a whole lot -- seven times total throughout the season, beginning with finishing second to Trevor Bayne in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Edwards won at Las Vegas two weeks later for what would prove to be his only win of the Cup season, then finished second at Bristol in the race after that. One week later, a sixth-place finish at Fontana moved him into first in the points standings -- a position he would go on to occupy for 24 of the 36 race weekends that comprised the long, grueling season.

Edwards also finished second at Richmond and at Darlington and in each of the final three races of the season -- at Texas and Phoenix in addition to Homestead -- to apply pressure to Stewart. His average finish for the season was 9.3, and his average finish of 4.9 in the 10 Chase races was the best in the history of the playoff format, which was introduced in 2004.

In the end, Stewart was just a little better.

"This is going to be a motivator, and we are not going to quit," Edwards said. "It's tough. You go on the Internet and do a Google search about inspirational quotes, and there are a lot of them about this very situation. And there should be. It's tough and it's not fun -- but I'm surrounded by a whole lot of people who are stronger than me who already have helped me get this far.

"Our mission is to continue on the pace that we're on, making everyone match that and never quit -- and hope that there's not another guy like Tony Stewart out there who will have that kind of run again [in the Chase] and take away the championship."

Despite all the second-place runs, it's not like Edwards forgot how to win races. In addition to the March win at Vegas, he also won the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in dominating fashion last May -- and he won eight times in 33 starts in the Nationwide Series in 2011.

And he went down swinging in the epic championship battle with Stewart. He captured his third pole of the season to start out front in the season finale at Homestead and led 119 laps in the 267-lap event before Stewart forced him to settle for second in the smaller and bigger pictures that day.

"The win at Vegas was really big. The All-Star win was huge," Edwards said. "But truly all that stuff really pales in comparison to that last race [weekend]. That pole run, I'll never forget that. I went down into Turn 1 and [crew chief] Bob [Osborne] was screaming into the radio. He was pumped.

Carl Edwards: Notes-n-Nuggets

• Thirty-three years old from Columbia Mo.
• Finished second in the championship standings in his seventh full-time season.
• Tied his best career championship finish (second in 2008, finished 69 points behind Jimmie Johnson).
• Qualified for the Chase in six of his seven seasons, all but 2006.
• Fourth time he finished top five in the year-end standings.
• Led the standings for 15 weeks during the regular season.
• Scored one win in 2011, at Las Vegas.
• 4.9 average finish in the Chase, best in the eight seasons with a Chase format.
• Worst finish in the 10 Chase races was 11th at Talladega, seven top-fives, nine top-10s, including finishing second in the last three races of the season.
• Season Numbers: One win, three poles, 19 top-fives, 26 top-10s, 903 laps led, 0 DNFs, finished on the lead lap 31 times, average finish of 9.3, the only driver in single digits.
• Nineteen career wins but only three in the past three seasons.

"And then I'll also never forget right before the race. Tony's crew, as they walked by, were fist-bumping our guys and giving me a thumbs up. It really felt like we were going into battle with deserving fellow competitors, and that everyone was enjoying the competition. To me, that's what I'll remember most about this season -- that tension and that feeling of how exciting it was."

Watch all of Edwards' highlights from 2011 and flip through his year in photos below: