CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Success came quickly for Carl Edwards, who won four times and finished third in the championship race in his first full season at NASCAR's top level.
The next year was a disaster. Edwards failed to win a Sprint Cup race, missed the 2006 Chase, and learned it wasn't as easy as it looked just a season before.
"That woke me up quickly," Edwards said. "We were coming off a great year, and we missed the Chase, and that was really eye-opening. So I completely respect the position we are in."
The position he is in is precarious.
With nine races to go to set the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, Edwards is in danger of missing the 12-driver field. Although he is 11th in the standings, the last two spots go to race winners, and Edwards would presently be leapfrogged by Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne.
Edwards tied Tony Stewart for the championship last season, losing what would have been his first Cup title on a heartbreaking tiebreaker. A mere 16 races later, he and his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team are looking nothing like they did last season, when he led the points for 23 weeks. Edwards only lost the championship because Stewart couldn't be stopped during a five-win push over the final 10 races.
There is a theory that the driver who loses the championship suffers through a hangover season the next year, and Edwards seemed to prove that after his nine-win runner-up 2008 season. He wasn't a factor the next year, when he again went winless and finished 11th in the final standings.
Edwards said this week in a phone interview with The Associated Press that he doesn't put much stock in the hangover notion, even though he appears to be suffering through one right now.
"What I believe is that the guy that almost wins the championship has a pretty big microscope above him," Edwards said. "The reality is that it is cyclical, and this team has proven to be really hot and cold, and that's really frustrating for everyone. But lately, I think the lows have been higher than what they used to be, we just need to prove that.
"If you look at the end of 2010, we won the final two races and we were moving (in the standings) the last 12 to 15 races, and 2011 was very good. Now, 2012 is obviously no good. But if we could turn it around and make the Chase, we could make it look a little more constant and consistent."
Edwards said there is nothing different about his team seven months after they lost the championship. He opened the season by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and from an organizational standpoint, Roush is obviously in good shape -- Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle have both won races, and are ranked first and fourth in the standings.
The difference is that his Roush teammates haven't had the bad luck that has hit Edwards this year. Of all the strange things that have happened, only the jumped restart at Richmond can really be blamed on Edwards. He went from challenging for the win to a 10th-place finish that night.
Most everything else, though, has been plain old racing bad luck, including last Saturday night at Kentucky when a late fuel stop spoiled what should have been a top-five run.
"The biggest thing I can do is to be realistic and to remind myself and educate people that you can do the best possible performance and still have things happen that are out of your control," he said. "We've run pretty well, but people wrecked in front of me at Bristol, we had a tire blow out at Dover. We've had trouble with running out of fuel. The penalty at Richmond, that was our fault, but some things have just not gone our way."
He has heard all the speculation about why things have changed for him. It ranges from the time he's spending in the television booth as an ESPN analyst for Nationwide Series races, to him sitting out those races this year after running full Cup and Nationwide schedules the past seven years.
The worst theory? That Edwards might need a new crew chief because Bob Osborne is allegedly not getting it done anymore.
"It's really tough because you start to hear all these things, but none of those reasons are real and they don't make people wreck in front of you, and they don't make tires blow," Edwards said. "Sure, it's not as good as it could be, but we're all battling to make it into the Chase. And something that I tried to point out the other night, is the fact is just 16 or 17 races ago, Bob and my communication, the decisions and the things we were doing with the cars was as good as anybody in the sport.
"We just have to keep believing in ourselves and believing in each other."
But, he knows they also must be perfect the next nine weeks, and that's a very tough spot to be in with so much on the line.
Edwards could very well push too hard. So could his crew, and so could Osborne, and that could lead to mistakes or mishaps that sink his chances.
Even worse, up next is Saturday night's race at Daytona. Although Edwards has yet to win a restrictor-plate race, he's competitive and has tried every different strategy to make it to Victory Lane.
It's left him a bit unsettled heading into Daytona, where he's hopeful he's got the engine for another pole-winning run so he can race at the front most of Saturday night.
"Daytona is one that makes me a little more nervous than the others because from here on out, we want to be aggressive," Edwards said. "But, it's like, 'OK, let's throw your elbows up and lets go race like hell and make something happen,' when the problem is I've been caught in a ton of wrecks. We have to be smart. All the running around, pounding our chests, acting like we are going to throw caution to the wind, it sounds great and it sounds entertaining, but we have to make the Chase first. We know we are better than this, Bob and I looked at each other (after Kentucky) and we said 'We are smarter than this, we are better than this, and we don't need to be making these kind of mistakes.'"