HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Want to know a surprising secret? Carl Edwards believes he's a better driver today than he was a year ago.
Really? How could he possibly feel that way?
One year ago, Edwards was as hot as a driver could be without winning the championship.
And now? About as cold as a Chase driver can be.
"This [season] was a big wake-up call for us that things can become uncompetitive so easily," Edwards said Friday. "I don't know what will happen next year, but I hope we get back on track."
Edwards won three of the last four races in 2008, including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It wasn't enough to catch Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup title, but it made Edwards a clear favorite to knock Johnson off his throne in 2009.
Edwards never came close. He enters the Ford 400 on Sunday without a victory this season, a shocking fact considering he led the series with nine wins last year.
He's 11th in the 12-man Chase standings and hasn't posted a top-10 in the past five races. But he still believes he has improved as a race car driver.
"I'm probably driving smarter than I ever have," Edwards said. "Once I realized we didn't have the same performance as last season, we buckled down and made the Chase, which at that time was a heck of an accomplishment.
"And not wrecking my car and making terrible choices by trying to do things that weren't going to happen. That's where I've done a better job than in the past."
One would think this season couldn't end fast enough for Edwards, but he doesn't see it that way.
"I have mixed emotions about it," he said. "We've had a long season. I'm looking forward to having a fresh start next season. But in one way, I don't want it to be over. I want more opportunities to win and get back on track and say, 'See, that wasn't so bad.'"
Edwards knows it was bad, far worse than anyone on the No. 99 Ford team could have imagined.
Two things fill his thoughts now: Why did it happen, and can they fix it for 2010?
Edwards isn't sure, but he knows the problem isn't crew chief Bob Osborne. Edwards didn't forget how to drive, and Osborne didn't forget how to run a Cup team.
"Bob and I respect one another," Edwards said. "It would be foolish to let our relationship go south because of our on-track results. Bob is working harder than he ever has.
"Whenever things don't go well, I think back to last year when Bob couldn't make a bad decision. But the last thing Bob wants to do is make knee-jerk changes. All our teams [at Roush Fenway Racing] have struggled, so it's not like we're running worse than our teammates."
Edwards is running better than three of his four teammates. Greg Biffle is seventh in the Chase standings, but he also hasn't won this season.
Without a doubt this has been a tough season for us. But Homestead could give us some momentum to carry us through the offseason.
”-- Bob Osborne
Theories abound on RFR's fall this season. Ford planned to debut a new engine early in the year, but Edwards hasn't used it all year. Teammate David Ragan will use the new motor Sunday.
Another theory is the new rules this season of limited testing kept RFR from gaining ground on the Hendrick Motorsports cars.
"We're in a predicament, I believe, because we can't test anywhere," Biffle said. "Our simulation is not proving to be enough. Otherwise, we'd be competing and winning races now, so I don't know what we're going to do to be more competitive next year. If we knew, we'd be doing it right now."
Edwards doesn't agree with his teammate.
"I don't think it's the testing," he said. "When this new car came out [in 2007], we didn't test. Hendrick had tested 26 times before we went to the track [and tested] the first time. We were behind, and it showed.
"But once we caught up, I don't think the testing differences were that big. Now we all are testing about the same amount."
Edwards does see one disadvantage for any team that slumps in the middle of a season.
"You work so hard just to get to the next race," Edwards said. "The only time to step back and look at the macro-scale is the end of the season."
That will happen soon enough, but for now, Edwards and Osborne have a couple of goals left for 2009. First is to end with a win.
"Homestead is a great track for Carl," Osborne said. "And we're taking the same car that he got a top-10 finish with at California last month.
"Without a doubt this has been a tough season for us. But Homestead could give us some momentum to carry us through the offseason."
A victory also could propel Edwards into the top 10 in the standings. That would give Edwards a seat at the awards banquet Dec. 4 in Las Vegas.
"It matters to me because I have the greatest sponsor in the sport in Aflac," Edwards said. "So I want to be there to stand on that stage and thank them."
Edwards also is thankful he learned something useful as a driver in a season of so much disappointment.
"I really believe it will help me," he said. "Next season, if I have a car that can win, and I continue to think this way [as a driver], we'll score a lot of points."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.