CUP: Who Will Stop Johnson’s Reign?

While covering NASCAR for more than three decades, it has become apparent to me that the differences between being a contender and an also-ran are often very small.

Each season, some drivers and teams that came up short the previous year arrive at Daytona with high hopes and a sense that the momentum they may have built heading into the winter break is going to vault them into contention in the new season.

Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team are a prime example of that type of thinking.

A year ago, after a decent if unspectacular regular season, Hamlin came out of the finale in Homestead as the hottest driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and the odds-on favorite to finally end Jimmie Johnson's unprecedented run of titles.

And Hamlin did live up to his billing for most of the year, challenging for the championship right down to the final race before running second to the indefatigable Johnson.

This winter, it’s Carl Edwards who came out of Homestead with the momentum and expectations of a big season in the coming year.

But it’s not the first go-round for the Roush Fenway Racing driver.

In 2008, Edwards won a season-high nine races. More to the point, he won three of the last four and finished second, 69 points behind champion Johnson.

Expectations were sky-high for 2009, but something went awry. Edwards went winless and finished 11th in the standings.

This year, Edwards and the whole Roush team struggled throughout the season before finally winning some races in the late going.

Edwards finished strongest of the four Roush drivers, winning the last two Sprint Cup races of the season — his only wins of 2010.

A lot of the late-season success can be attributed to the emergence of the new FR9 engine, the first purpose-built NASCAR racing engine to ever come out of Ford Motor Company.

Add the new power plant to the momentum from the wins at Phoenix and Homestead and Edwards is quickly regaining confidence.

“I feel a lot better right now going into 2011 than I did going into 2009, and that’s because I feel we have a lot of momentum and things are getting better,’’ Edwards said. ”We have a new engine that we are working on that just keeps getting better.’’

Referring to the final two races of the season, he said: “That is the best performance down a straightaway than I have had in a long time.’’

That’s very good news for a driver and team that suffered through a 70-race winless string before taking the checkered flag at Phoenix.

“A 70-race winless streak is very difficult,’’ Edwards said. “Jack (Roush) owns the team and he goes to bed and wakes up every morning, I’m sure, thinking how can we make this better. I got to bed and wake up every morning thinking how can I be better, and (crew chief) Bob (Osborne) does the same thing.’’

Now they have a short off-season to find a way to get off to a strong start and try to find a way to knock Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports team off the top rung, something that hasn’t happened in half a decade.

Roush, who has won Cup championships with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, knows what it’s going to take.

“You have to make fewer mistakes than they do and be better at spending your money,’’ Roush said. ”There’s enough money to do what you need to do here, but the main thing is spending money on the things that you have got enough time to affect a good result and a good solution to the problems and challenges you’ve got. That’s what we have to do.’’

If they do, Edwards could truly get another shot at denying Johnson a sixth straight championship.

But it’s sometimes very hard to turn expectations into reality. Just ask Hamlin.

Mike Harris was the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Associated Press and is now a frequent contributor to Harris can be reached at