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Carl Edwards moves past 2011 championship heartbreak

For the first time since losing the 2011 title to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker, Carl Edwards returns to Homestead with a chance to win the Sprint Cup championship.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting in his New York City hotel room Monday evening, Carl Edwards did what most do and started flipping channels on the television. What he stumbled across was something that continues to cast a shadow over his career.

Being broadcast was a replay of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale where Tony Stewart outdueled him for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. NBCSN was re-airing the race in honor of Stewart retiring following Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400.

For Stewart that 2011 battle represented a monumental moment. He won his third series championship after a rollicking playoff performance in which he won five of 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup races, all the while smack-talking with boisterous proclamations where he placed the competition on notice.

But while that record playoff run in many ways encapsulated Stewart's defying characteristics of grit and bravado, for Edwards 2011 represented the title that got away. Stewart and Edwards tied for first in the Sprint Cup standings -- a NASCAR first -- with Stewart taking the tiebreak on the strength of his five victories to Edwards' one.

It was a gut-punch defeat for Edwards, who despite leading the most laps finished second to Stewart at Homestead. That victory proved the difference. Afterward, as Stewart soaked in the champagne celebration, Edwards stood on pit road with his hands on his hips trying to comprehend what happened.

"At first I thought, ‘Man, I don't want to watch this,'" Edwards said Thursday at Chase media day in Miami Beach. "Then, I watched it and I thought, ‘This is good for me. I need to get to remember what that was like and get a glimpse and a view of how important this is,' and it really was.

"It was motivating. When I shut it off, I was really ready to race right then."

Five years later, Edwards returns to the South Florida track this weekend with his first shot at a championship since that fateful night. He's one of four drivers qualified for the final Chase round in which the best finisher among them will be crowed champion.

Competing against Edwards is six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who with another series crown will tie the NASCAR record held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt; Kyle Busch, the defending series champion and Edwards' Joe Gibbs Racing teammate; and Joey Logano, who leads all drivers in wins and top-10 finishes over the past three years and is also seeking his first championship.

It is the deepest field of title contenders since NASCAR instituted the knockout Chase format prior to the 2014 season. Yet among the four, only Edwards has to deal with the after effects of losing a championship in about as painful way as possible. Johnson and Busch are former champions, and while Logano came close two years ago, he didn't suffer defeat in a manner anywhere close to resembling Edwards' torment.

"Those last few laps, I was driving my guts out," Edwards said. "That was everything I had."

Although he got labeled as someone who wilted under the increasing pressure that comes with being a central player in a championship battle, such a reputation is unjustifiable upon closer inspection.

Stewart may have steamrolled to five Chase victories while Edwards went winless (his lone victory occurred during the regular season), but Edwards' performance was equally remarkable. He amassed nine top-10 finishes, a worst result of 11th, closed out the playoff with three successive runner-ups, and his 4.9 average finish is the best ever in the Chase (2004-present).

"It really was a good battle," Edwards said. "It was pretty cool. Going back and seeing it on TV the other night made me realize it could have gone either way. I felt like we both brought our A-game."

With time Edwards has gained perspective on the events from 2011. He admits going through the experience of being in a virtual must-win situation back then gives him a comfort level of how to handle Sunday. To win you must first lose, and it's why Edwards forced himself to watch Monday's replay to see how Stewart outran him ran in closing laps.

"Obviously, I would love to have won that more than just about anything, but it really was a good experience," Edwards said. "It's just good to go through that. It kind of galvanizes you, makes it easier to do it again."

And in gesture that could be considered symbolic, Edwards gave Stewart the helmet he wore the night Stewart hoisted the Sprint Cup trophy at Edwards' expense last week as a retirement gift.

"To get to race Tony at his best for a championship was really a cool experience," Edwards said. "To be able to see how much that meant to him and how important that battle was to him, that was really cool."