Signs point to a strong finish for Carl Edwards
July 30, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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Carl Edwards witnessed the best-case scenario firsthand. Matt Kenseth was the points leader when news broke in June 2012 that the former champion would leave Roush Fenway Racing -- the only home he'd ever known at NASCAR's top level -- at the end of that year. With the shadow of the transition hanging constantly over him, Edwards' former teammate won twice late in the season to rebound from a rough start to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Kenseth didn't leave with the title, but he left Roush with his head held high.
Of course, then there's the other end of the spectrum, which we witnessed in 2007 after Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the year. It wasn't the best of seasons anyway for NASCAR's most popular driver, but it got worse -- over the final 22 races Earnhardt suffered six DNFs, most of them engine failures that sparked whispers of sabotage given the strained relationships within the organization at the time. Earnhardt crashed in two of his final four starts and limped out of Homestead a distant 16th in final points.
So yes, for the lame-duck driver, it can go either way. Roush officials announced Sunday at Indianapolis that Edwards would not be back with the organization next year, leaving the two-time championship team with a younger lineup pairing Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne along with veteran Greg Biffle. While Edwards divulged no details about his next destination -- "there are a lot of moving parts," he said -- he did tell reporters at the Brickyard that his next deal is done.
So now everyone waits to see where that next deal will take him, and Edwards begins a 16-race finishing stretch that will essentially define his final season with Jack Roush. Although he's won twice, the No. 99 team is somewhat emblematic of Roush as a whole in that it struggles to maintain consistency, something evident in Edwards' results since his most recent victory at Sonoma. No question he wants to cap his 11-year run at Roush with the championship that to this point has eluded him, though the past indicates he'll more likely have to settle for something less.
Throughout NASCAR's long history, there's never really been a case of a driver winning a premier-series title, and then leaving an organization that was still active the following season. The closest was 1956, when Buck Baker won the championship as part of a powerhouse team fielded by Carl Kiekhaefer, the Mercury Marine founder whose NASCAR program enjoyed an incredible two-year run that netted 52 victories and consecutive titles with Tim Flock and Baker. After Baker's title, NASCAR implemented rule changes to level the playing field, and Kiekhaefer -- concerned that more mediocre results would harm his boat engine business, which he used racing to promote -- pulled out.
Baker went on to win the title again in 1957, racing half the season for owner Hugh Babb and the other half in a car the driver fielded himself. But that example requires a notable asterisk, given that the team Baker left behind was shutting down, and the move occurred in an era when drivers ran regularly for multiple car owners in a single season. For Edwards, or anyone, to do it in an age when drivers are so reliant upon crewmen and mechanics who may feel their own divided loyalties -- not to mention race teams which are apt to reallocate resources, or shut lame-duck competitors out of strategic meetings as the season wanes on -- would be a gigantic feat indeed.
Given what we've seen from Roush this year, that's probably a stretch anyway, Edwards' two victories on the season not withstanding. But there's every reason to believe he can finish strong, just as Kenseth did two years ago, and others in similar situations did before that. The timing of the Roush announcement also fits with a bevy of previous moves revealed in high summer, all of them coming with a substantial chunk of the season still remaining -- enough time to allow the teams and drivers involved to slip back into familiar routines despite the transition awaiting them.
That was certainly the case for Kenseth, whose departure was announced with 20 races still to go. Back in June of 2007, Hendrick Motorsports confirmed Kyle Busch's pending release with 22 events still remaining -- a domino effect of Earnhardt's addition -- and the former driver of the No. 5 car finished top-10 in 13 of them to secure a fifth-place standing in final points that stood as the best of his career until last season. Ryan Newman discovered last July that he wouldn't be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing the following year, and he won the next week at Indianapolis and scored 10 top-10s in his final 17 starts.
It was July 2008 when Tony Stewart announced he would be leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to become part-owner of what was then called Haas-CNC Racing, and the future three-time champ enjoyed a strong late-summer stretch and won at Talladega before a slump in the Chase relegated him to ninth in final points. Clint Bowyer waited until October 2011 before he announced that he was leaving Richard Childress Racing for Michael Waltrip Racing, and in his final eight starts of that season recorded five top-10s and a victory.
And then there's the mother of all farewell tours orchestrated by Kevin Harvick, who remained with RCR more than a year after it was assumed that he would be leaving for SHR following the 2012 campaign. Regardless, Harvick went on to have one of his best seasons in the Childress fold, winning four times and finishing third in final points for the third time in four years. No question, some drivers experience tumultuous lame-duck seasons, as Earnhardt did in 2007, and as Kurt Busch did during his Roush finale two years earlier. But the weight of historical evidence would seem to indicate otherwise, suggesting that Edwards and his No. 99 team may not be done yet.
The fact that Kenseth was in almost this identical situation, with the same organization involved, certainly bodes well. The folks at Roush know the drill. Kenseth was able to win races and contend down the stretch in what had to be a season more emotional than the stoic Midwesterner would let on. Now there's another Roush driver from the heartland, another competitor who doesn't share his feelings easily, walking down the same path at the same time of year. Given what we know of Carl Edwards, anything less than a renewed focus on the finish line would be a surprise.