Carl Edwards stood on the winner's circle stage at Eldora Speedway, smiling for pictures with his one-time enemy Tony Stewart.
The two hoisted Edwards' 2007 Prelude To The Dream trophy together and Stewart – the track's owner – presented Edwards with a big check for charity on behalf of the event.
This Tony Stewart guy, Edwards concluded, wasn't so bad after all.
Ever since then, the tangible animosity from Edwards' clashes with Stewart in their first two years racing together has become a distant memory. And with Edwards and Stewart occupying the top two spots in the point standings with just three races to go in the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the former rivals have turned friendly.
The racers proclaim their respect for one another, are quick to praise each other and, perhaps surprisingly, have no negative history in the "Have At It, Boys" Era which has seen so many drivers clash.
Their relationship wasn't always so amicable, though.
In July 2006, Stewart intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer at Pocono and collected Edwards in the process. The crash ended Edwards' Chase hopes that season – it was the only playoff Edwards has missed – and the Roush Racing driver badly wanted to whoop Stewart's butt.
"If it weren't for respect of the sport and the people watching and his team and everything, he'd be out there bleeding right now," Edwards said then. "That's so frustrating. How can a person make it this far in life being that much of a jerk?"
At the time, Stewart didn't think much of Edwards, either.
"Carl, I think, is starting to show everybody that he's the Eddie Haskell of NASCAR," Stewart said the next week, referring to the sneaky character from Leave It To Beaver.
"We did not like each other," Edwards says now. "And then we went and did that race at Eldora. He invited me to come do that race, and I won it, and it was a cool moment. ... Right then I thought, 'Man, you know what? We're a lot more alike than we are different.'"
Says Stewart: "The first couple years Carl was there, we might have crossed threads a couple times. But more times than not, we've worked really well with each other."
Respect a rarity in current NASCAR garage
Over the last two years, as NASCAR has fostered rivalries both on and off the track and encouraged drivers to police themselves, respect between racers has been harder to find.
Stewart has been one of the most outspoken drivers on the topic of respect – or lack thereof – and he recently proposed setting up an inflatable boxing ring after the races in which drivers could fight.
But though the driver/team owner seems to take issue with many competitors, Edwards is not one that irks him.
"I've got a lot of respect for him," Stewart says. "He's always raced me clean, and I've always raced him clean. If you're going to race a guy for a championship, you want to race people you respect and have that mutual admiration for. I'm excited about it."
Their relationship has progressed so significantly in the last four years that Edwards sought Stewart's counsel earlier in the season when he needed advice.
Now, instead of wanting to rough up Stewart, Edwards says he "looks up" to the two-time Cup champion.
"I know you guys wish I hated him or had something terrible to say, but I don't," Edwards says. "I think he's a good racer, and that's how I feel."
Edwards, though, is quick to add: "I want to beat him worse than anybody. I'd love for it to come down to me and him and beat him."
A friendly war of words
Despite their relationship, Stewart immediately started smack-talking the younger driver upon winning the Martinsville Speedway race last week.
Though he trails Edwards by eight points, Stewart told the whole world he was hungry for the Sprint Cup trophy.
"Carl Edwards had better be really worried," Stewart said in Victory Lane. "He's not going to have an easy three weeks."
"He's wound up," Edwards responded when told of Stewart's comments. "He won the race. We'll see what happens at Texas."
Countered Stewart later: "My adrenaline has worn off. He better not sleep too long the next three weeks."
A few days have passed, and the drivers are still sticking to their original comments – Stewart is full of swagger and Edwards is politely dismissive of the trash talk.
"They better be (looking over their shoulders)," Stewart says. "If they're not, they're making a mistake. And I'm all for them making mistakes right now, too."
"After Martinsville, I said exactly how I felt there in the media center: He's just wound up, he's feeling good, he's got a fire under him," Edwards says. "And that's good."
Stewart, who typically turns quiet and humble in the face of success, has been outspoken this time. He says the comments stem from his highest level of confidence since his 2005 championship season.
"(The Martinsville win) gives this team a feeling of, 'If we can overcome that, we can overcome anything,'" he says. "We do have that confidence on our side right now. ... We feel like we've got just a good of a shot – probably a better shot – than anybody."
Counters Edwards, who is trying to win his first championship: "We're not going into those last three races behind him. He can say whatever he'd like, but the fact is, we've proven all year we can stay up front – and he knows that. He's smart. He's talking and he's saying things and he's pumping his guys up – which he should be doing – but I feel really good about our position."
Both drivers trying to stay focused on themselves
Heading into Texas, it would be easy to buy into the hype of a two-man race. On the surface, it seems third-place Kevin Harvick would need slip-ups from both Edwards and Stewart to catch them for the championship.
But the top two drivers say that's exactly why they need to remain focused on their own efforts and not each other.
"I think it'd be foolish for either one of us to goof around too much and start going back and forth and let one of these other guys come in here and snatch this thing from us," Edwards says.
"No matter what he does," Stewart adds, "I'm more worried about what I'm doing."
Statistics favor Edwards at both Texas and Homestead (one of his best tracks), and Phoenix is an unknown because of the new configuration there.
Edwards is already past his two weak spots in the Chase – Talladega and Martinsville – and sounds both surprised and pleased to have escaped both races with the points lead.
"I looked at (the final three races) as our opportunity to rally and push and gain points," he says. "And I could only hope we'd start out ahead. If we were 20 points behind, I'd still feel like we were going to win this thing. So just having the extra cushion is nice."
Stewart, though, is just as confident. And even with no ill feelings between the top two contenders, the final three races are shaping up to be wildly entertaining.
"It makes a battle like this that much more fun, because there's no aggression involved in it," Stewart says. "You want to beat him because you know he's a talented competitor, and it makes it that much more gratifying when you accomplish your goal."