CORAL GABLES — Carl Edwards is exasperated by Jimmie Johnson. He's impressed by him. But even though he probably will be eclipsed by him Sunday when Johnson likely wins a record-tying third straight Sprint Cup title, Edwards finds it hard to be infuriated by him.
"You try really hard not to be jealous or spiteful because of his success. But Jimmie makes it easy to respect what they're doing," Edwards said Thursday at a media event preceding the season's final race, the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Edwards seems resigned to racing in the Jimmie Johnson era, though he thinks he could eventually be the one who ends it. And as much as he rues mistakes in his third Chase for the Championship that have put him second to Johnson, 141 points behind, going into the final race — a deficit virtually impossible to make up — he finds it hard to conjure disdain.
He and Johnson trace their cordiality to a conversation when each was a newcomer to the sport. While NASCAR's luminaries mingled inside the home of International Speedway Corp. president Lesa France Kennedy during her annual preseason soiree in 2002, Johnson, then a 26-year-old rookie surprisingly on the pole for the Daytona 500, and Edwards, a 22-year-old unknown from Missouri who had yet to make a Truck series start for Roush Fenway Racing, chatted outside on the front steps.
"I didn't know anybody there. I didn't belong there," Edwards said. "I don't know how I got invited. And here's this guy Jimmie Johnson.
"Man, we just kind of sat there on the steps, and we didn't really have anybody else to talk to. He was a really nice guy, and I thought, 'Man, that's a cool guy.' It's neat to see someone like that succeed."
To a point, such emotions likely will help salve Edwards' pain of finishing in the top three in the final Cup standings for the second time since 2005. When he considers the Chase that got away, what will sting are a wreck with 17 laps left and a 29th-place finish at Talladega, and a mechanical failure at Charlotte that led to a 33rd-place result.
"I will never forget sliding down that banking with the mangled-up car (at Talladega) thinking, 'Wow, I have really (hurt) us here.' That was a bad feeling," he said. The 12-car wreck, started when Edwards tried to give Roush teammate Greg Biffle a shove to the front, also badly damaged the title bids of Biffle and teammate Matt Kenseth.
Sunday, Johnson needs to finish just 36th to clinch the championship. Edwards was somewhat heartened in learning that he had made up 127 points on Johnson at Homestead in 2005.
Johnson, who has cleansed his mind by spending an extra day in Phoenix for relaxation, running on Miami Beach and attending a Black Crowes concert Wednesday night, said, "The thing I am focused on the most is how we can lose this championship."
But retired three-time champion Darrell Waltrip quipped later, "Yeah, 127 points, but where are the other 20 coming from?"
Perhaps from another mad dash to the finish, though Edwards said, "The only way this thing could get extremely dramatic is (Johnson has) some sort of trouble."
Edwards, much like Johnson, has used manic late-season bursts to put himself in position to contend for championships. With four races left in the 2005 season, Edwards won consecutive races at Atlanta and Texas, finished sixth at Phoenix and fourth at Homestead to pressure eventual champion Tony Stewart, but he fell 35 points short.
An eight-race winner this season, Edwards won the Atlanta and Texas races again and was fourth at Phoenix. His increasingly futile pursuit was most dramatically captured in Victory Lane at Atlanta, however, when word that Johnson had rallied from 30th place and a lap down — passing 10 cars in the final eight laps — to finish second.
"Are you kidding me?" Edwards said, a smile retreating from his face. "Jimmie's magic."