History shows no move may be Edwards' best move
June 25, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
There was simply no way, it seemed, that the driver and the team could remain together. Performance had slipped, frustration had bubbled to the surface, tensions had become evident. The driver himself went on television and said it might be time to look elsewhere, while less-than-substantial media reports had him ticketed for first one new destination, and then another. And then something very interesting happened.
Kevin Harvick stayed exactly where he was.
That was the way the greatest soap opera of the 2009 and 2010 seasons came to an end, with the former Daytona 500 champion re-signing with a Richard Childress Racing team he appeared ready to leave a few months earlier. The extension came on the heels of Harvick feuding with his team owner over the radio even as he mostly kept silent to the press, but going as far as to tell ESPN "maybe it's time to turn the page." In fairness, every indication pointed to him racing somewhere else once his contract ended at the end of 2010.
But in NASCAR, where it takes a number of pieces falling into place to facilitate the movement of a championship-caliber driver from one organization to another, things aren't always as tidy as they appear. Harvick may have indeed reached his wit's end with RCR in late 2009, but looking deeper, it was fairly clear that he had very few options as far as relocation. At the time, he didn't have a sponsor willing to follow him to a new team. And the other organizations he was being linked to did not have the means to put together a package to support an elite driver like Harvick, who rightly expects to be contending for the title every year.
Ultimately, all those pieces did fall into place -- but it took another three years before Harvick had a sponsor in Budweiser that was able to anchor a new program at a new team, in this case Stewart-Haas Racing. And that happened when many least expected it, on the heels of three third-place points results in four years, as opposed to the rancor that preceded his extension with RCR in the spring of 2010. All of which goes to show that no matter the feelings at the moment, a driver's destiny can be dictated by many factors outside of his immediate control, and despite evidence to the contrary, sometimes the best move is not to move at all.
All of which brings us to the situation surrounding Carl Edwards, the current major-player free agent on the NASCAR market, and somewhat like Harvick in 2009 -- in a situation where every indication would seem to point toward moving on. Granted, the parallels aren't exact -- in Edwards' case, there is no public acrimony between him and Roush Fenway Racing. He and Jack Roush aren't openly arguing over the radio during races, as Harvick and Childress were in late 2009. And with two wins and a guaranteed berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, he's also enjoyed much better performance than Harvick did five years ago, when the RCR driver went winless and dropped as low as 27th in points.
Regardless, we're talking about another top-level driver, and one who's going to require a substantial package around him to produce the kind of results he's been accustomed to. Where does Edwards find that? Like Harvick in 2009, he doesn't appear to have a major primary sponsor able to follow him to a new organization. One prospective home dried up when Roger Penske -- who has two young Sprint Cup drivers in Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, and a star in the making in Camping World Truck Series standout Ryan Blaney -- said there was no room at his shop. The focus then shifted back to Joe Gibbs Racing, which hasn't closed the door on expansion, but historically has undertaken such things carefully and with sponsorship already in place.
While surprising things can still happen -- Kurt Busch to SHR, anyone? -- more often than not, driver moves at Edwards' level occur only after considerable groundwork has been laid. As tough as things may be at a driver's current shop, someone like Harvick or Edwards isn't going to leave if a move would put them in a less competitive position. That's why Harvick stayed with RCR in 2010 despite an avalanche of reports that indicated otherwise. And that's why we shouldn't be shocked if Carl Edwards is indeed wheeling the No. 99 car for Roush Fenway again next year. As Harvick showed us five years ago, it's amazing what can happen if a driver has no better place to go.
Of course, Edwards ultimately may find that place if JGR is willing and able to put the right kind of package around him. The same team certainly managed to do just that for Matt Kenseth when he joined the organization prior to last season -- although the 2003 champion was filling a ride vacated by Logano, and his move was facilitated by some sponsorship that was already in place. Whether the same might be the case with Edwards is yet to be seen. But in a post-merger era with fewer teams and a NASCAR-mandated four-car ownership cap, drivers simply have fewer options available to them regardless of how dissatisfied they may be in their current situation.
Now, none of this means the very real issues affecting Roush should be dismissed. Edwards' victory at Sonoma comes on the heels of a performance at Michigan that ranked among the organization's most dispiriting ever. Greg Biffle -- like Edwards, also in a contact year -- is winless and 16th in points. Even the team's NASCAR Nationwide Series program, which recently won two titles, has produced decidedly mixed results. But NASCAR is cyclical, and top teams go through phases where they run ahead and play catch-up, and with the exception of Jimmie Johnson's seemingly bulletproof No. 48 program, no one stays up or down forever. One season after Harvick was ready to "turn the page" at RCR, he won three times and led the points for 20 weeks.
Of course, he still left when the right situation presented itself, even though that took three more years. But over the course of his final contract with RCR, Harvick won nine times and once again proved himself a perennial title contender, finishing off the best four-year stretch of his career to this point. That success certainly made him more attractive to the sponsors that would ultimately follow him to his new home, making the move to Stewart-Haas possible.
Whether the same will happen with Edwards, time will tell. Every week, there is new speculation surrounding where the 23-time race winner might end up, though to this point he's stuck by his longstanding personal policy of not discussing such matters publicly. Maybe the right situation will indeed present itself for 2015, and Edwards will be wearing new colors for a new team next season. Or maybe he'll stay where he is, and bide his time a little longer, and wait for that right situation to emerge. As proven by Kevin Harvick -- now in perhaps the most potent ride of his career -- that latter option can be worth waiting for.