In the seemingly eternal quest for a driver who can wrest the Sprint Cup championship from Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards must be considered.

On the storyboard virtually every week as a threat, Edwards had struggled for much of two seasons to put up the big numbers to prove his case. But that situation turned in mid-season this year as he notched 10 top-10 finishes in a stretch of 12 races and piled up enough points to move from 12th in the standings to fourth, which is where he finished.

There still remained the fact that he had not won a race in a string of 70 straight, however, and there was the thought that the No. 99 team, despite obvious on-track improvement, would carry that dark cloud with them into the off-season.

Edwards dashed those fears, however, with a solid win at Phoenix, then underlined the team’s newfound strength by duplicating the feat the following week at Homestead.

Although there was little question that Edwards and his team had their act together in the second half of the season, the back-to-back wins provided a big lift into 2011.

“When we had all those good runs and scored a ton of points in the summer, I realized, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” Edwards said. “If that stretch had been the Chase, we would have won the championship. That proved to me that we can do this right now, even in the position we’re in.

“Then, to build on that at the end of the season and win races and be on poles, I think it all kind of crescendoed at the end of the season. That’s the best we’ve been in a long time.”

Even though Edwards rang up the consistently good runs in the summer to re-establish the team’s sense of balance, the end-of-season victories provided the proof that speed had returned to their mix, Edwards said.

“And the speed comes from the crew chief’s decisions and the engineering back at the shop,” he said. “If you don’t have a fast race car, you’re really in deep trouble because the competition is extraordinarily tough. It’s hard to even explain. It’s so competitive now that if you’re off even a 10th of a second you’re in trouble. There’s no way you can make that up. It really boils down to cars being fast.

“I think that in the middle of the season we proved we’re mature enough and experienced enough and all that stuff to score points and not make big mistakes. I think that was a big step – to be able to race smart.

“But then we talked a lot at the shop about the fact that we just didn’t have dominant cars – cars that could sit on poles and win races. I think it was really huge [after Phoenix and Homestead] just to know that’s how easy it can be if we just do everything right.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.