DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. _ Trevor Bayne may have celebrated the prestige and the glory Sunday evening in Daytona, but it was Carl Edwards who emerged at the top of the Sprint Cup Series standings.

Since Bayne declared he would run for the Nationwide Series driver championship, he earned no points for his dramatic win. Therefore, as the season makes the trek to the Phoenix International Raceway next week, it is Edwards and his Roush Fenway Racing crew that head out there the team to beat.

Laying low for much of the week on the Sprint Cup side of things, Edwards was able to keep his Ford FR9 engine cool throughout the day on Sunday and was there when it mattered most. With a full head of steam and a strong push from behind in the form of David Gilliland, the No. 99 Aflac Ford Fusion made its charge on the final lap, only to come up short to Bayne’s No. 21.

“I think that I can tell you guys that second place in the Daytona 500 feels way worse than any other position I’ve ever finished in the Daytona 500,” Edwards said.

Calling the race “520 miles of sheer terror,” Edwards explained his strategy was to avoid trouble early and be there in the end.

“That was pretty wild out there today,” he said. “I kind of decided that I’d like to be there at the end, so I did my best just to be there at the end. That’s not real flashy. That doesn’t look great for TV sometimes. But we were there at the end and that’s what I had to do.”

He is right, it was not flashy, it was not great for TV, but it allowed him to continue his momentum from last season. While Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick were occupied points racing for the championship title, Edwards was busy scoring back-to-back front row starts and back-to-back wins at Phoenix and Homestead to close out the 2010 season.

Picking up right where he left off, Edwards has again shown he may be the early championship favorite in 2011.

“I think we’ve got a lot of positive things going on, a lot of ’em,” Edwards said. “Our performances have been good. We got a win, a win and a second. That’s a pretty good streak to be on. You never know what’s going to happen. But a couple tracks coming up are really good for us. I feel really good about it.”

Despite emerging as the points leader and scoring his best finish in the Daytona 500 to date, Edwards remained disappointed that he missed out on Sunday’s ultimate prize.

“Look, right now this is going to be a long night for me. I’m going to go back to the motorhome, I’m going to watch the replay, think about a hundred things I could have done, think about, man, what would it have been like to finish the race,” he said. “I’m going to go to Phoenix next week and look at the points and think this was OK. We’ll race the Daytona 500 again next year.”

That being said, the importance of a good run was not escaped on the driver that gave Johnson a run for his money in the 2008 Chase. With so many potential Chase drivers finding trouble in Sunday’s event, Edwards understands the importance of making it out of Daytona not only in one piece, but in a good spot heading to Phoenix.

“There is a very bright side to our day today,” he said. “We are going to have bad days. It’s nice to get out of this one, considering the chaos that was going on, it is nice to get out of here with a great points run.”

Edwards’ solid run gives him some solid breathing room as the series starts to kick off the stretch of races that will take it to Phoenix, Las Vegas and then back to Bristol in the next three weeks – all tracks at which Edwards has victories.

Looking at the standings and those around Edwards, only four other drivers in the top-10 have made the Chase in previous years, only two of those – Kurt Busch (fourth) and Kyle Busch (seventh) – were in the Chase last season.

While the season is still in its infancy and Daytona is its own beast in many ways, Edwards’ strong performance on Sunday and continued success carrying over from the end of 2010 has him leading the charge and the man to beat next weekend in Phoenix.

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