Edwards did what he could down the stretch, and that will help in the future

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- If NASCAR had a five-race Chase, Carl Edwards would have won the championship by a landslide.

Edwards coasted home on fumes, winning Sunday for the third time in the last four races. He led the most laps in the Ford 400. Crew chief Bob Osborne made the right calls at the end to get every drop of gas out of the No. 99 Fusion.

They did everything right down the stretch. It wasn't enough.

Edwards fell 69 points shy of the Sprint Cup title, watching Jimmie Johnson earn his historic third consecutive championship by finishing 15th in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

For Edwards, the hole was too deep in the end. He knew the odds were against him, but his noble effort was worthy of praise.

It was like watching a football team down 35-7 in the fourth quarter before it roars back, keeps scoring and has the ball on the opponent's 5-yard line when time runs out and it loses 35-32.

It hurts to fall short, but that no-surrender attitude is a recipe for championships in the future.

The first person to congratulate Johnson was Edwards, standing at the start-finish line as Jimmie drove up on his cooldown lap. Johnson stopped and Edwards put his arm in the window to shake Johnson's hand.

"Second place in the championship is not what we came here for," Edwards said. "But for anybody out there trying to accomplish something, you can't lose if you give 100 percent. We did that, but we got beat by a true champion in Jimmie Johnson."

Edwards ended the year with a career-best nine victories, the most wins for any Cup driver this season. He also had more top-5s (19 to 15) and more top-10s (27 to 22) than Johnson.

Edwards even had more top-5s in the Chase with eight to Johnson's six. One would think eight finishes of fourth or better in the 10 playoff races would get it done.

But back-to-back bad showings at Talladega and Charlotte were the difference. Edwards caused the inevitable big wreck at Talladega, finishing 29th. An ignition problem caused him to finish 33rd one week later at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"We knew we were at a disadvantage after those two races," Edwards said. "We lost a bunch of points. But these last few races have been really fun. We knew we could go out and be aggressive."

That he did, giving everything he had in the second half of the Chase to make a run at Johnson. But this is a points system that penalizes a driver severely for a poor finish and rewards him for consistency.

Johnson's worst finish in the Chase was 15th twice. The first one came at Texas when he got the most out of a No. 48 Chevy that looked like a 30th-place car. His car was better than 15th Sunday, but it was time to play it safe, something Johnson rarely does.

Second place in the championship is not what we came here for. But for anybody out there trying to accomplish something, you can't lose if you give 100 percent. We did that, but we got beat by a true champion in Jimmie Johnson.

-- Carl Edwards

So Edwards couldn't quite get there. He needed one bad day from Johnson, but never got it. Edwards shaved 72 points off the 141-point lead Johnson enjoyed entering the Homestead event.

Edwards becomes the first driver in NASCAR history to finish as the runner-up in the Cup Series and the Nationwide Series in the same season. And he did it by winning the last race for both leagues, also taking the checkered flag Saturday when Clint Bowyer edged him to the Nationwide crown.

Edwards was unbeatable all weekend. The 99 Ford was the class of the field for most of Sunday, leading the most laps and driving away from the field. But things changed when darkness fell.

Edwards got shuffled back to sixth on pit strategy by other teams. He couldn't get back to the front in dirty air under the lights. For a while, Johnson was ahead of him.

But the race came down to fuel mileage, something Edwards and Osborne proved they could master in the victory at Texas two weeks ago.

As he did that day, Osborne was the calming voice Sunday that kept the emotional Edwards on course.

"Be smart, be smooth and don't give it away," Osborne told Edwards.

Edwards did something that seems illogical in the final laps; he gained ground on leader Matt Kenseth while also slowing down to conserve gas. Kenseth was doing the same thing and ran dry with three laps to go.

Edwards had a 14-second lead and needed only to keep the engine running to the end. No easy task, but Osborne gave specific lap-time instructions to make sure Edwards pulled back.

It worked. Edwards ended the season in Victory Lane and watched Johnson celebrate on the championship stage. But Edwards stood proud, knowing he landed punches until the final bell.

He lost the title to a man who now is being called one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.

"We won more races than Jimmie and ran with him when he won,'' Edwards said. "Personally, I feel we closed a big gap this season. We weren't quite good enough to catch them, but they knew we were here."

And Edwards is poised to stay here for a long time.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.