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Caraviello: The burden, and benefit, of having been there before

November 18, 2011, David Caraviello,

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Five years ago at the NASCAR season finale, the anxiety was so evident on Jimmie Johnson's face that the friends and family members gathered in hopes of a potential championship celebration couldn't even look him in the eye. Johnson had been on the wrong end of a pair of title races already, finishing second to Matt Kenseth in his rookie season, and playing runner-up to Kurt Busch in the inaugural Chase. After the previous year's fifth-place result, things had grown so tense between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, that the pair nearly broke up.

It all combined to make the final event of the 2006 campaign an emotional grinder for a driver who wondered if he was watching his window of championship opportunity being slammed shut. As much promise and expectation as there is on the final weekend of a title run in NASCAR's premier series -- the sport's most sought-after crown is, after all, so close you can see the South Florida sun glinting off the sterling silver trophy -- it can also carry with it a crippling sense of foreboding, particularly for drivers who have reached this same endgame before. Johnson can recall it all in painful detail, from the pressure to be perfect to the specter of it all slipping away.

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"It was damn near life or death to win the championship for me," he said.

Johnson of course overcame all that to rip of an unprecedented string of five consecutive titles, and the anxieties he once felt at Homestead-Miami Speedway eased a little more with each passing year. Now the burden is heaped upon his potential successor, Carl Edwards, who holds a three-point lead over Tony Stewart entering this last race of the season, but like the Johnson of five years ago has twice seen the title wriggle out of his fingers. In 2005, his first full season on the Sprint Cup tour, Edwards tied for second (behind Stewart) with Greg Biffle. In 2008, he won three of the last four races but couldn't fully regain ground lost earlier in the Chase, and played the role of runner-up in Johnson's third championship campaign.

It's an odd dynamic -- listen to Edwards, and you can see how being so close so many times can help familiarize a driver with the championship process, allowing him to steel himself against all the doubts and anxieties that accompany it. Yet listen to others who have been through the same routine, and it seems the near-misses only suck more air out of the equation, and hammer home the notion that if they don't win it this time, finally, they might never win it at all. It happens: James Hylton was runner-up three times during the heyday of Petty and Pearson, and Mark Martin has finished second in final points five times throughout the course of his otherwise illustrious career. Neither ever claimed a title.

"If you keep coming up short, eventually it affects you in a negative way," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon. "But if you come up close a couple of times and you win -- that team is going to create and gain incredible momentum, and be a real force to reckon with in the future. This championship weekend is going to teeter on that. I think with Carl coming so close, and being so strong the last couple of years, coming to the track he kind of owns in a way -- if they don't pull it off this weekend, I think it's going to impact them in more of a negative way than a positive way. Yet, they pull it off and win it, watch for them to be even stronger next year."

All week, Stewart has hammered home the refrain that he has nothing to lose in this title Chase -- a belief that may well change should he come up short Sunday evening -- but in one area, he's absolutely right. With two championships on his shelf, he doesn't have to worry about never winning one, a factor that may not make this weekend any easier, but at least would seem to ease the mental burden. Edwards, meanwhile, has only the two that got away, including a 2008 title run that was derailed by a big wreck at Talladega that he caused by being too aggressive with 14 laps remaining.

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Does he remember that? You bet. In 2008, "I think I held on a little too tightly," Edwards said, "maybe was a little too aggressive." This time around, Edwards has seemed calm and comfortable, even joking with the media Friday during his weekly interview session about how much he needs a haircut. We've seen nervous -- just glance back at Denny Hamlin last year, who at times during the final weekend looked like he was preparing for a painful dental procedure. Publicly, at least, Edwards does not fit that mold. The too-tight, too-aggressive contender of championship runs past seems a little different this time around, and he has his previous experiences under these same conditions to thank for it.

"I feel like I've been though all of it," Edwards said. "I've lost the championship two different times. In 2005, if I could go back and do it again, we would have won. [In] 2008, I feel like if I could do it again, I would have won. And so I've seen how to lose them. And now all that's left is to go out here and apply those things, and hopefully that's enough. But I feel like those things are money in the bank. There were lessons learned and there was resolve put inside of me, and there are things I've been able to move forward and apply."

He's had an interesting mentor -- Johnson, who long ago mastered the art of staying cool above the fray, and whose strength on the race track often comes from an unruffled nature. Edwards said he's observed the five-time champion, seen how he operates with a title at stake, and picked up small tips on how to keep himself composed in what can otherwise be among the more stressful moments of his career.

"You guys [in the media] have known me for long enough, and how I am. If I get wound up about something, I go into full-on attack mode -- we're going to solve the problem whatever way seems best at the time. So what I've been doing is focusing on all the lessons that I've learned over the last seven years and the things that I've seen," Edwards said.

"It's really good to be able to watch Jimmie closely these last few years, and I think it was very educational for me to be a part of that Chase in '08 and to be able to be really close to him and kind of see how he approaches things. So whenever I feel myself thinking, 'Oh man, this would be awesome if I won it,' or, 'What happens if this,' I say, 'All right, take a minute here. Go do the best you can. Be the best race car driver you can be,' and I think of it as just being a machine in that race car. I need to get in that race car, go do everything that I know how to do to win this thing, and all of the other stuff doesn't matter."

Crew chief Bob Osborne has seen the change in his driver. "I think he's definitely better at it this time than the last opportunity we had, and the time before that and so on and so forth," Osborne said. "I think just the experience going through the process and going through the procedures that we have to go through race week after week in high-pressure situations gives him just a little bit of added edge for the next year that we have to do it."

Such is the duality of having been there before. On one hand you have an Edwards who appears more composed, more confident, more capable of becoming the champion everybody believes he can be, all because he's traversed this same crucible twice before. On the other you have a potential situation that can beat down even one of the best the sport has ever seen. "I wasn't sure I'd ever have another shot at a championship again," Johnson said, again recalling five years ago. "And I felt a lot of anxiety surrounding the finale in '06, and a lot of pressure on my shoulders, because I didn't want to miss that opportunity."

And seizing that opportunity, which is rarer at NASCAR's top levels than it might seem, is what this is all about. After his 2008 campaign, Edwards thought he'd be right back in the thick of it the next year. In reality, it took him three years to get there. If he doesn't win it all Sunday? As talented as he and his Roush Fenway team are, you'd certainly think they'll be contenders once more. But Hylton and Martin might have thought the same thing. Nobody ever knows which time is the last time.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.