By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Will the next mystery guest enter and sign in, please.
Oh, it's you, Carl. Welcome back.
For the past year, Carl Edwards had been missing in action, an almost invisible participant in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but that changed suddenly and definitively Sunday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway.
Edwards won his first race since Mar. 6, 2011, the day he took the checkered flag at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Heck, on Sunday, Edwards led his first laps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, since Aug. 25, 2012, at Bristol.
The 2013 season started out like more of the same frustration -- only worse. During the Preseason Thunder test at Daytona in January, Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned Marcos Ambrose in the draft and -- blam! -- Edwards car was destroyed in the resulting wreck.
Four more times during Speedweeks in February, Edwards was swallowed up by wrecks he didn't cause. The last mishap came in the Daytona 500, 137 laps into the race, when Edwards' No. 99 Ford was wiped out in a nine-car accident in Turn 1. He finished 33rd. By then, Edwards had to be thinking that 2013 was going to be just as delightful as the previous year had been -- when he missed the Chase and watched in frustration as those who qualified for NASCAR's playoff received their accolades at the annual Sprint Cup fete in Las Vegas.
But as the weekend progressed in Phoenix, Edwards felt something he had been missing for a long time: speed in his car. On Sunday morning, he was cautiously optimistic.
By the time he made a pre-race appearance in the Phoenix media center for Subway, the race sponsor and the primary sponsor of his car, Edwards was positively sanguine about his chances in the race and able to joke about his misfortune at Daytona.
"It's tough," Edwards said. "We crashed five times. I told the guys on TV, people were calling me 'Five-Time' for the wrong reasons. That wasn't very cool. Jimmie Johnson gets called 'Five-Time' because he won five championships."
But the optimism was almost palpable, too. It was a striking thing to see in a driver who had failed to win in 70 consecutive starts.
"Yesterday, after practice, we went hiking, and I was like, 'Man, I'm in a great mood,' " Edwards said. "I just felt good, and I realized that's because we're running well. I really love that."
Edwards also benefited from an expansion of the Ford camp to include Penske Racing. Since Penske announced a switch from Dodge to Ford last year, Edwards has made it a point to make peace with an old nemesis, Brad Keselowski.
On Sunday, the former adversary was an ally. On the restart that decided the race, Keselowski pushed Edwards clear of Johnson, and the rest was a formality.
"We all know that Brad and I have not had the best history," Edwards acknowledged. "It was pretty bad at one point. But we've worked a lot through Ford in the off-season, we did our media day, Brad and I talked a little bit about how we planned on helping one another this season, and that I think was an amazing example of what we can do together to make sure Fords get to Victory Lane.
"We want to do what we can do to help one another, and that was very cool today of Brad to push us. I knew if we made it to Turn 1 first, we were going to win that race. He could've gone three-wide, he could have made that a heck of a lot harder, and that was pretty big."
It's easy to forget that, in the throes of his losing streak, Edwards nevertheless managed to tie Tony Stewart for the Cup championship in 2011, finishing second in each of the final three events of the season and losing the title on a tiebreaker.
It's more important, though, to have Edwards back in the mix, winning races. And what we saw Sunday is likely to signal more to come, and in fairly short order.
So welcome back, Carl. We've missed you. We've missed your trademark back flip.
Don't be such a stranger.