Edwards led a race-high 157 laps, ran out of gas as he crossed the finish line, but still won Sunday's season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Still, his series-high ninth win of the year wasn't enough to wrest away the Sprint Cup title.
Johnson locked up his third consecutive championship with a solid 15th-place run, beating Edwards by 69 points to join Cale Yarborough as the only drivers in NASCAR history to win three straight titles.
"It's the ultimate reward. We worked so hard to put ourselves in this position," Johnson said. "It's just total teamwork and dedication. There were times this year when things were dark, but we buckled down and got to work and that's what it was really all about."
Yarborough won his three titles 30 years ago, under a different scoring system and in a very different NASCAR. He accomplished his feat when drivers scraped together the cash they needed to race, and the champion was the guy on top at the end of a long grueling season.
Johnson's titles have been won in the glitzy new Chase to the championship format, where the best 12 drivers compete over a 10-race sprint to the title.
Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team have mastered the system, proving themselves unbeatable in their pursuit of Yarborough's mark. They've won their titles with consistency — he finished outside the top 10 just twice in this Chase, a 15th-place finish at Texas — and by winning eight of the last 30 Chase races.
They've also gotten very rich along the way: Johnson has won more than $2 million in the 10 Chase races this year. Yarborough earned a combined $1.63 million in all three of his championship seasons.
Although the industry was keenly aware of its front row seat to history, the celebration seemed subdued because of the economic crisis that's finally found its way to NASCAR. The Big Three automakers are crumbling, car owners are struggling to find sponsorship, and widespread layoffs are expected Monday, when teams could combine to let go up to 1,000 employees.
Just this weekend, NASCAR said it would suspend all testing next year to help teams save millions in their 2009 budgets.
Had the crisis hit earlier, and the testing ban was in place this season, Johnson very well might not have won the title. He struggled at the start of the year in adapting to the full-time use of NASCAR's current car, so he and crew chief Chad Knaus embarked on an aggressive testing schedule that helped them catch the competition by late summer.
By the time the Chase began in September, Johnson drove right past them.
"It's what we work for, it's what we do," said Knaus, the first crew chief to win three consecutive titles. "We don't want to do anything but race and win races and win championships."
When Edwards won back-to-back races at Atlanta and Texas to take a bite out of Johnson's points lead, Johnson rebounded with a win at Phoenix last week to make Sunday's drive a mere formality. He needed only to finish 36th or better to win the title, but got off to a rocky start when he qualified 30th.
But Johnson moved to the top of the speed charts in Saturday's practices, then wasted no time driving through the field at the start of the race. He picked up at least one position a lap at the start, and was running inside the top-10 as the race neared its conclusion.
He stopped for gas and tires with 13 laps to go, leading to his 15th-place finish.
Edwards pushed it to the limit, knowing he had to win the race, lead the most laps and pray for Johnson to have some trouble to win his first title. But he was a gracious runner-up, and after his trademark celebratory backflip, he walked over to Johnson's passing car on the track to congratulate him.
"At least we can lay our heads down tonight and know we won some races and just got beaten by a true champion," Edwards said.
It was the second straight night Edwards won the race, yet still came up empty in the championship bid. He won Saturday night's Nationwide Series event, but came up 21 points short of champion Clint Bowyer.
Edwards' win Sunday chopped 72 points off of Johnson's margin and he was optimistic as he crossed the finish line, radioing his Roush Fenway Racing team "we'll definitely get them next year."
Kevin Harvick finished second and was followed by Jamie McMurray and Jeff Gordon, who finished the year winless for the first time since his 1993 rookie season. But the four-time series champion didn't let his own struggles dampen his Hendrick teammate's celebration, as Gordon walked to the victory stage to offer his congratulations.
Bowyer finished fifth and was followed by Kasey Kahne, Travis Kvapil and Casey Mears.
Tony Stewart, in his final ride for Joe Gibbs Racing after a successful 10-year run, wound up ninth after giving up the lead late in the race to pit for fuel.
"We didn't win the race, but they knew we were here and we showed why we've been champions and won 33 races with this team," said Stewart, who is leaving to run his own race team next season.
Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top 10.
Matt Kenseth, who won the 2003 series championship in the final year of the old points system, led late but ran out of fuel and finished 25th in his first winless season in seven years.
"We just can't seem to get things to go our way," said Kenseth, who was frustrated teammate Edwards could stretch his gas but he could not. "I don't understand how he can make power and still get that much better fuel mileage than us. I had such a big lead, I was just riding around."