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Warning: Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear

  Jeff Burton, who had a great shot at the 2008 NASCAR title but then fell flat in 2009, ends the season on a high note....but he's certainly well wary of not getting overconfident about 2010 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick all closed out 2009 on a high, with solid runs – 1-2-3 – in Sunday night's NASCAR season finale. But they all may need to go into the winter wary of just what happened to Carl Edwards this season, who after that brilliant 2008 season fell flat this year, after being picked as one of the tour's pre-season title favorites.
   Turning points aren't always clear. And sometimes teams seem to leave their game at Homestead…just like sometimes teams leave their game at Daytona in the spring.
   Hamlin has been a title contender the past few years, but inconsistent, as again this fall, with three DNFs in the chase, but two wins and six top-fives.
   So Hamlin wound up fifth in the final standings, 317 points behind tour champ Jimmie Johnson.
   Burton and Harvick didn't even make the playoffs this season, so they're already wary about going through the brief off-season overconfident.
    Burton says "Obviously it has been a really good four weeks.
   "Even though we haven't been running like we need to, everybody has been working really hard and putting a lot of effort out, and that is all I can ask for.
    "Even early in the year when we weren't running well, everybody was working hard.
    "That is why you never heard me get down.
   "We just got going down the wrong direction with our cars over the winter. We've got to be wary not to let that happen again.
     "Todd (Berrier, Burton's new crew chief, just a few weeks on the job) has done an incredible job putting the team together very quickly (since taking over a month ago)…and we put ourselves in position.Two second-places in our first four outings, with a fifth and a ninth, that is pretty good.
      "We're not where we need to be, but we'll keep working. We have a good baseline."
    Harvick and Burton both pointed to extra speed in the cars lately, and how that has created another problem – how to harness the new speed.
   Will Hamlin be a solid title contender in 2010? Or will he hit one of those cyclic skids that seems to bedevil just about everyone in this sports at one time or another…except for Superman Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus?
   Edwards himself is the poster boy for pre-season predictions that just don't quite go right. He struggled to finish seventh, failed to make the top-10, and finished 534 points down.
    "I'd like to be happy with seventh place, but I'm not," Edwards said. "We needed two or three more positions to beat Kasey (Kahne) for 10th in the points.  I really wanted to be there at the banquet (in Las Vegas)….but I'll give a quick version of my speech: 'Thank you, Aflac and Ford and all of my fans for sticking with us.  I know it's been a tough year, but we'll be back next year. 
    "We're going to be all right.  It's just frustrating.
    "I felt we had a car, that with a little different track position, maybe could have won. So that's good, that's a good way to finish the season, at least being competitive."
    And Edwards concedes he's a bit in awe of what Johnson has managed to accomplish: "I can't believe Jimmie did it.  It's unreal. 
    "I really just believed that something would happen and Mark would be able to get him…because it's so amazing the luck they've had. 
     "I know it's not all luck, but there's luck that goes with it, and they've had amazing performance and amazing luck, and my hat's off to them."
    Edwards' teammate Matt Kenseth summed it up this way, after his 13th place run: "There was maybe a little bit of improvement, not much (the last few weeks for his operation). At Charlotte and Texas and some of those tracks, things were better.
   "But we didn't run very good as a group here, really. Carl ran okay…but the rest of us didn't run that great."



    Carl Edwards: nine wins in 2008, surprisingly zero in 2009 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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