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Even with 10th-place finish at Fontana, Carl Edwards is the newest leader atop Sprint Cup standings

Mar 23, 2014, 8:35 PM EDT

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Carl Edwards has been on an uphill climb all season. Sunday, he hit the top of the mountain. With plenty of others also vying for the same spot, now the question is how long he’ll stay there.

After starting off the season with his worst showing thus far in 2014, 17th place in the Daytona 500, Edwards has been in perpetual motion upward in the Sprint Cup standings.

Following Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in suburban Los Angeles, and even though he finished 10th in the race, Edwards finds himself atop the Cup rankings.

Admittedly, Edwards’ lead is anything but secure, with four fellow drivers within seven points of his lead.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led the Sprint Cup points first three weeks, climbed back up from third-place to second, just one point behind Edwards.

And Brad Keselowski, who led the points coming into Sunday’s race, dropped to third in the standings, but is just four points behind Edwards.

Let’s not forget Edwards’ former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth. He’s only seven points away in fifth place.

Even if you haven’t watched all of the first five races, you could readily see Edwards’ progress in his individual race finishes.

After Daytona, he finished eighth at Phoenix, fifth at Las Vegas, rallied late to win last Sunday at Bristol and then battled handling problems yet still came back to finish in the top 10 Sunday in Fontana.

Add that all up and Edwards has one win, two top-fives and four top-10s in the first five Cup races, equal to Jeff Gordon‘s record thus far, and just behind the identical marks of one win, three top-five and three top-10s by Earnhardt and Keselowski.

Edwards is still seeking his first Sprint Cup championship. He almost won it in 2011, tying Tony Stewart in points, but losing in the first tie-breaker of overall wins (five wins for Stewart vs. just one for Edwards).

With his win at Bristol, Edwards is most of the way into the Chase, but not completely. The way NASCAR has structured the new Chase qualifying format, wins are of utmost importance. But if there are more than 16 winners in the first 26 races of the regular season, an early season winner like Edwards, Keselowski, Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick or even Sunday’s winner Kyle Busch could still come up short of the playoffs.

“There has been a lot of talk about it (among fellow drivers, media and fans),” Edwards said after his Bristol win. “I’ve been listening to the radio guys a lot and everybody is assuming that you win and you’re in, and that’s definitely not the case.

“We have 12 more races (two races before the Chase-qualifying cut-off race at Richmond in September) and all of a sudden it turns in to there are already 16 winners, but the first step is you have to win. I think we’re proving that right now. You’re going to have to have a win, I believe, to be in the Chase, so now that we’ve checked that box, we need to go get another win and then I think we’ll be guaranteed to be in it.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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