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Edwards back in a winning way

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By Ngozi Ekeledo

AVONDALE, Ariz. ( Terry Blount / ESPN.com ) -- When Carl Edwards walked in the media center before Sunday's race, he said a few people were calling him "Five-Time" for all the wrong reasons.

It wasn't "Five-Time," as in five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

"We wrecked five cars at Daytona," Edwards said. "So I've been hearing that term about me this week."

Edwards went from one of the worst weeks of his racing career to a victory at Phoenix that could turn his career around after a miserable 2012 season.

He ended a 70-race losing streak one week before the two-year anniversary of his last victory. His trademark back flip returned, including a jump into the grandstands where he was surrounded by approving fans.

No five-time, but it was fun time.

"This is one of the coolest wins of my life," Edwards said. "Honestly, I was starting to get mad. I said, 'I'm going to quit being so nice about this.' Not at you guys for asking about the losing streak. I was just tired of losing."

No NASCAR driver ever came as close to winning a championship without winning it as Edwards did in 2011. He tied Tony Stewart in the points standings (a NASCAR first), but lost the title because Stewart had more victories -- five to one.

It was a huge disappointment, but Edwards and the No. 99 Ford team started last season with high hopes. And then everything changed. The team struggled. Edwards went winless and missed the Chase.

"We were holding Carl back last year," team owner Jack Roush said Sunday. "We didn't have the right chemistry around him."

Basically, 2012 was a disaster for a man expected to contend for the championship.

However, 2013 was a fresh start with a new crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, who led Matt Kenseth to a Chase spot and three victories last year, even with Kenseth driving as a lame duck at Roush Fenway Racing.

Hopes were high again for Edwards with Fennig on board, before the Daytona downer. It seemed every time he got on the track, his car ended up a mangled mess. The week ended with a wreck in the Daytona 500 and a 33rd-place finish.

"We put that all behind us," Fennig said. "Nobody had their head down."

Nevertheless, doubts have to creep in. What in the world was happening to this team? Were things ever going to change for the better?

"I'm no psychologist, but I can tell you, as drivers, we all have pretty fragile egos," Edwards said. "You are always questioning yourself. And if you aren't getting that positive reinforcement, it's tougher. For me, there's been a lot of self-analysis. Am I doing the right things?"

He did the right things Sunday, including a green-white-checkered restart at the end when no driver knew for sure if their car had enough fuel to get to the end. Edwards held off Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, three pretty decent shoes in a race car.

Edwards said he was just glad he was in front when it mattered.

"Really, Jimmy [Fennig] is the man and our pit crew was unreal," Edwards said. "Those guys are bad to the bone. They won the race for us."

All the racing at the end was behind Edwards. Hamlin made a daring move on the apron to go from fourth to second on the last lap, only to see Johnson push by him on the outside by a few inches at the finish line.

"We overachieved today," said Hamlin, who started near the back because of an engine change. "We finished better than I could imagine half way through the race."

If anyone can relate to what Edwards is feeling, it's Hamlin. He came close to winning the championship in 2010, had a disappointing season in 2011, but rebounded last year with new crew chief Darian Grubb. And Hamlin won this race a year ago to start his turnaround.

"Carl is relevant again," Hamlin said. "This is very similar to what we did. We won here and had a good season last year. I suspect Carl will do the same.

"No team, with that much depth, will stay down long. When you have a year like they did last year, it's almost certain you will be better the next season because you work so much harder. To win at the first real race of the season is big for them."

Edwards appreciated Hamlin's perspective.

"Man, he must have really felt good here last year," Edwards said about Hamlin. "I just feel so confident now about this team and the direction we're going.

Now Edwards heads to Las Vegas, the 1.5-mile oval where his last victory came in 2011.

"This win feels as good or better than any win I've ever had," Edwards said. "I've tried to stay positive, and I can't say enough about all the people who continued believing in me. Don't lose hope. I'm telling you, we're back."


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