Edwards nearly stole Stewart's thunder

For Carl Edwards, the 2005 Nextel Cup campaign was something well beyond a dream come true. Even an eternal optimist like Edwards wasn't expecting four wins and a third-place points finish in his first full season.

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., this past season probably didn't stand a chance of going this poorly even in his worst preseason nightmares. Sure, he'd be adjusting to a new crew chief, despite winning six times in 2004, but how hard could that be for a driver who'd never finished worst than 16th in five full seasons?

For Greg Biffle, the year was confirmation that he could be every bit as successful at NASCAR's highest level as he had been while winning championships in the Craftsman Truck and Busch series.

For Jeff Gordon, it was a year when the "Drive For Five" turned into a midseason dive. Still, Gordon won four races, including the Daytona 500, and a late-season rally with new crew chief Steve Letarte showed that the quest for a fifth championship could pick up steam in '06.

There are at least 43 stories for each of the series' 36 points-paying events, and some drivers will be more thankful than others now that the season is over. On the grand scale, though, there was plenty to be thankful for this season as nary a driver in any of NASCAR's three national series suffered a career-threatening injury in '05.

Here's a look at just a few of the stories that made this a year to remember, or forget, for some of the drivers who couldn't quite keep Tony Stewart from his second championship. And some of the drivers who never even had a chance to chase down Stewart over the final 10 events.

Edwards' remarkable year ended with four wins and 13 top-five finishes. Alas, he had just 18 top-10 finishes, compared with 25 for Stewart, and that was the difference where the championship was concerned. Still, Edwards seemingly indicated he'd be a force for years and years to come.

On top of that, his enthusiasm sparked something in team owner Jack Roush, who smiles almost as much as his driver when the two are together.

"I'm gonna say that Carl Edwards -- I predict -- is the driver of the decade for not only Roush Racing but for all of Nextel Cup racing," Roush says. "I can't imagine anybody coming into the business in their first full year and being able to win four times, and [he] won in the Busch car for the first time this year. He finished tied for second in points. There are a lot of things about Carl. First of all, he's a really great person and he's the kind of young man that if you thought about having another son, you'd love to have him be your son."

Edwards hopes for an even more memorable year in 2006.

"If we can maintain the same amount of luck, we'll be all right," he says. "We're gonna have a good time next year. I can't wait."

If you think Edwards sounds charged up about the future, just listen to Biffle, who led the series with six victories.

"I can't wait for the Chase next year," Biffle says. "I don't want to race for 26 races, I want to race the Chase again because it's so much fun."

Biffle, of course, isn't the only driver eager for next year's Chase. In the cases of Earnhardt and Gordon, each driver just hopes to be back in the top 10 after 26 races.

Junior's lone highlight came in July, when shrewd pit strategy led him to Victory Lane at Chicagoland Speedway. Otherwise, the year was barely worth remembering. On the bright side, he'll be working with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. from the outset in 2006, so hope springs eternal during the offseason.

"I'm wore out, but I can't believe the season is over. This one went by fast," Earnhardt says. "I wish we were racing somewhere [this] week. Maybe this gives me a good reason to get the karts out [on] Sunday and have a helluva big race on the dirt track at my house. That's probably what I'll do."

Gordon won't be racing, nor will he be celebrating an 11th-place finish in the standings. He is, however, excited that his team is heading in the right direction.

"All that matters to me is performing and being up front, and I was thrilled with the way we ran [at Homestead]," Gordon says. "… All that matters to me is battling for wins and being competitive, and if we're doing that, points work themselves out. I really never focused one time on points throughout these last 10 races. Our focus was just on trying to make our team better, and I think we did."

Moments to remember: Biffle's dominance to start the year, as he won five of the first 15 events. Stewart's even hotter stretch in which he won five of seven races -- starting at Sonoma, Calif., and ending at Watkins Glen, N.Y. They were his only wins of the season, but he certainly made them count.

Edwards' last-lap pass at Atlanta in March for his first Cup win. Coming less than 24 hours after he won the Busch Series race, it capped quite the weekend.

Gordon's emotional win at Martinsville, Va., in April, the first time the series had been there since a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed there in October 2004.

Kasey Kahne's win at Richmond, Va. -- just as emotional, but this time there was nothing but pure joy surging through the crowd.

Other top moments included Kyle Busch's first career win, at California Speedway; Dale Jarrett's return to Victory Lane at Talladega, Ala.; and Mark Martin's win in the Nextel All-Star Challenge.

Moments to forget: Any of the scary crashes in the races at Daytona and Talladega. The smartest minds in the sport can't come up with a way to rid the sport of restrictor plates, so these accidents likely will continue unless those two tracks reduce the amount of banking in their corners. And that's probably not going to happen, so drivers once again will spend four weekends a year holding their breath hoping to avoid the "Big One" -- or at least avoid being injured if caught up in it.

Kurt Busch's banishment by Roush Racing from the year's final two races. No matter how you feel about Busch, or whether you agree or disagree with Jack Roush's decision, it certainly wasn't a high point for the sport to end the year with the defending champion on the sidelines.

And don't forget the two wreck-strewn races at Lowe's Motor Speedway. The track will have a new, yet-to-be-announced look to it next year, though, and that's something to look forward to.

But the 2005 season is in the past now. And testing at Daytona begins the second week of January, which is when another year's worth of memories will start being made.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.