MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- When Carl Edwards joined Jack Roush's racing operation full-time as a rookie in 2005, he had Mark Martin as a mentor. Edwards and Martin were two of the five Roush Fenway Racing drivers who battled Tony Stewart for the series championship that year. Edwards finished third in the standings, 35 points behind Stewart, and Martin was fourth, 105 points out.
Six years later, Edwards is coming off a dominant season that wasn't enough to propel him to his first title. He finished in a tie with Stewart at 2,403 points. But it was Stewart who claimed his third Cup title by virtue of the tiebreaker -- five wins to Edwards' one.
When Martin was in his prime, he was the best driver in the series who never won a Cup championship. Edwards is now in his prime and has yet to win the title, despite coming close three times. In many ways, has Carl Edwards become the next Mark Martin?
For many in NASCAR, that would be the ultimate compliment. After all, Martin has 40 Cup victories and held the Nationwide Series record of 49 career wins before Kyle Busch broke that mark this past season.
Martin was usually a contender for the Cup title, finishing runner-up five times, third four times and fourth three times. His most recent near-championship came two years ago when he finished 141 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson under the old scoring system.
Martin was already a three-time American Speed Association (ASA) National Champion when he formed his own race team and came to NASCAR in 1981. It didn't take long for him to make his mark as he won the pole at Nashville in his third race and backed it up in his very next race at Richmond with another pole. He earned his first career top-five with a third-place finish at Martinsville, the last race of a five-race schedule that year. The next year he competed in all 30 Cup races with his own race team before driving the J.D. Stacey car in 1983.
Martin was fired from that ride by the end of April 1983. He would run just 16 of the 30 races that season, driving for three owners before he returned to ASA to rebuild his career. Roush decided to form a Cup team in NASCAR and he chose Martin as his driver, first with a full-time effort in what was then the NASCAR Busch Series in 1987 and then in Cup in 1988.
While Roush did not "discover" Martin, he certainly helped reinvent the Batesville, Ark., native.
Just as Martin's career was deeply rooted in Arkansas and the Midwest, Edwards drove late models in Missouri and other Midwestern venues during his early days. In an attempt to find a ride at the next level he passed out business cards at racetracks and took out want ads bearing his picture in
"The whole goal during that time was just to get hired to drive a race car," Edwards recalled. "I feel like the rest of this and the success we've had has been icing on the cake. It's been amazing."
Again it was Roush who discovered Edwards and honed his racing talent, first in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and then Nationwide before getting a full-time Cup ride in 2005. Edwards made the most of that opportunity, winning four races and finishing third in the standings that year.
Edwards has won 19 races, including nine in a 2008 season that saw him finish second in the championship to Johnson. Edwards was expected to be the driver to beat for the title the following year, but he faltered, failing to score a single victory and finishing 11th in the Chase.
"In 2005 it slipped through my fingers and I thought it was no big deal, we would do it next year, then I realized it is a lot tougher than that," Edwards recalled. "It is an opportunity that only comes up every once in awhile and you have to make the most of it."
Although Edwards has been known to show a mean temper on the racetrack, including a dangerous payback to Brad Keselowski at Atlanta in 2010, he is pretty much "Mr. Clean" off the track, displaying the image of the all-American boy.
Martin is a fitness fanatic, but Edwards is a modern-day Adonis -- built like a rock and not afraid to work out to the extreme; he's been known to take bike rides for several hundred miles or hike through Vietnam or jump off the Stratosphere in Las Vegas.
On the racetrack, Edwards is intense and consistent. He set a Chase record with a 4.9 average finish this postseason, but it still wasn't enough to fight off the cheeseburger-chewing, Schlitz-beer-swilling Stewart, who fits the mold of Joe Walsh's
Despite the bitter disappointment, Edwards was ready to get a fresh start on the 2012 season even while Stewart was still celebrating his third cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago.
"Here is the deal -- whether we won tonight or we lost, tomorrow is the start of the next season," Edwards said after the final race of the season. "I was prepared before this race began to do exactly what I am going to go do and that is to be even better next year and apply what I have learned here.
"I told myself and my family that the one thing I am going to do is walk back to that motorhome win, lose or draw and be a good example for my kids and work hard and go be better next season. We talked about it before the race. Even if we won this thing, you get halfway through next season and struggle and it is quickly forgotten.
"As painful as this is right now I know we are fortunate to go to Daytona and start all over again and go race."
Edwards has all the ingredients to become a Cup champion. He is the darling of all the Ford drivers, assured of the best equipment the car company has to offer. He drives for one of the most innovative and driven team owners in the sport in Roush, who has Boston Red Sox owner John Henry as part-owner of the race team.
He has an impressive combination of driving skill along with a fearless attitude that makes him a force to contend with on any track. Those are all the same qualities that Martin had throughout his racing career, showing that they don't always guarantee a championship.
But Edwards has something on his side that Martin doesn't -- time.
Edwards still has years to win a championship, while the 52-year-old Martin is scaling back to part-time status next season at Michael Waltrip Racing.
"There are lessons that I learned and things I learned about myself, about competition, about failure, about success -- things that I could not have learned any other way," Edwards said after the Chase finale. "If there wasn't any pressure, there wouldn't be any diamonds. That's what my trainer says. We dealt with a lot of pressure and I feel very proud of the way our team and myself and everyone has handled everything through this, and I feel we made it all the way through and although we didn't come out with the outcome that we wanted, we are better because of it.
"I'm not trying to be philosophical or anything, I'm truly telling you that if I'm in this position next year, I'm going to be better at it. I'll be better, so that's cool. That's something you don't get every day is a lesson like this."
In years past, that could have just as easily been Martin saying those words. And while he never won a Cup title in his career, he certainly was one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history for many reasons, including the strength of his character.
Edwards also displays many admirable traits and while his character was tested during a sensational championship battle with Stewart, he has the qualities to overcome that adversity and triumph one day with a Cup title.
But even if he doesn't, there is no shame in being known as the next Mark Martin.