News & Media

Edwards made the only choice he had to make

August 04, 2011, David Caraviello,

Extension stabilizes driver's future, protects all that he's built this season

People within the NASCAR industry left Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend with the distinct impression that the saga surrounding Carl Edwards' immediate future was at last nearing its endgame. There were reports that tossed around dollar figures, others that indicated Ford was stepping in to sweeten the deal, comments from teammates and rivals alike that all but insisted it was time to get this done. There were die-casts and T-shirts and jackets for next season that had to be designed and produced. And then there was the driver himself, who politely deflected every question, including one regarding whether he had made a decision.

By Thursday morning, it was evident that he had. Edwards was remaining at Roush Fenway Racing, the only home he's ever known in NASCAR's premier series, rather than leave for Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2011 campaign. Given what Edwards has accomplished so far in his career and what he's capable of, it was the safe move. Given what he has a chance to accomplish this season -- win his first championship on the Sprint Cup circuit -- it was also the only real move to make.

"Anybody that's going through a contract renegotiation year, things are up in the air, it's always going to be a distraction."


Decisions like this aren't made for the short term, but certainly Edwards' standing at the moment had to have an effect. Even for someone as talented as Edwards, who has won 19 races at the Sprint Cup level, championship-caliber seasons don't come around very often. In the era of Jimmie Johnson, it's become exceedingly difficult for other drivers to shoehorn themselves into the title hunt, as evidenced by the rotating cast of characters -- Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth among them -- that the No. 48 team has dispatched en route to championships over the past five years.

Edwards was there once, too -- in 2008. That season he won nine times, and nipped at Johnson's heels until his rival shook him off for good with a victory at Phoenix in the penultimate race of the year. But Edwards had been so steadfast in his pursuit, at times so spectacular in winning race after race after race, that everyone figured he'd be right back in the thick of things the next season.

He wasn't. Although Roush is a steadier organization than most, having avoided some of the wild swings in performance we've seen other top teams endure in recent years, NASCAR is still a cyclical sport, and in 2009 Edwards was caught up in the cycle. He went from nine victories to zero as Roush and Ford battled on-track issues -- caused by faulty vendor-supplied simulation software, it was later claimed -- that would frustrate them for a whole year. It's taken three seasons for Edwards to build back up to where he left off following that 2008 season, three years for him to get back to being the championship contender everybody has always believed he should be.

For everyone not named Johnson, these kinds of opportunities don't come along every season, and drivers are well aware that careers are short and chances need to be seized when they arise. No matter what decision he ultimately made, there are no guarantees that Edwards would win the championship this season, despite the fact that he's led for points for all but six weeks all year. But had Edwards decided to leave, no doubt this conclusion would likely have been strung along a little longer, further exacerbating a tense situation for all involved -- and coinciding with a stretch in which the No. 99 car has finished outside the top 10 in three of the past four weeks. The real price to pay, though, would come near the end of the season, when Edwards would have tried to win a title despite being the odd man out on his own team.

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By now, we all know the drill -- lame duck drivers eventually get frozen out, locked out of meetings by organizations fearful of having tactics or strategies taken to another team. "Toward the last eight or maybe 10 races, I wasn't in the meetings anymore," Kyle Busch said, remembering the end of his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports. Good luck trying to win a championship when your team is parsing out information on a need-to-know basis only during the most important time of the year. No wonder Jeff Gordon opined last weekend that Edwards would be giving up every chance he had to win the championship this season had he decided to leave.

"Let's say he's going somewhere else -- they're done," Gordon said at Indy. "I just don't see them winning the championship knowing that they're leaving. I might be wrong. But if he stays, it might have just been a blip and then get back on track. So I think that's definitely playing a factor. I'm not saying that just for Carl. It would with anybody. Anybody that's going through a contract renegotiation year, things are up in the air, it's always going to be a distraction. I feel like it's one thing with Jimmie Johnson, with myself, with certain drivers, it's been very comforting to know you're in a secure position, where you want to be, you don't want to go anywhere else. It allows those discussions to take place without really distracting you, because they're really pretty easy decisions. It allows you to just stay focused on your team, what you're doing as a driver."

Now it's all over, and Edwards has signed his multi-year extension with Roush, and he can resume his pursuit of the Sprint Cup title feeling like he's just exhaled a breath he's been holding in for the past six months. In the big picture, too, this decision is probably the right one to make; although Gibbs has won three championships in NASCAR's premier series to Roush's two, JGR in recent years has been plagued by enough mechanical problems and engine breakdowns to give any potential free agent pause. Of course, Busch or Hamlin is capable of winning the title. But something like the string of failures Busch endured after dominating the regular season in 2008, or the engine blowups Hamlin has experienced this year, make it that much more difficult to get there.

Edwards career statistics

Cup Series
YearWinTop-5Top-10PoleLapsLedAvg. StartAvg. Finish

Then again, every organization has its own issues -- as Roush experienced with its 2009 setback -- and every team plays a role in a competitive cycle that inevitably makes frontrunners too hesitant to change anything, and chasers too willing to change everything. As sure as confetti will flutter in Victory Lane, one day the No. 99 car will be playing catch-up again rather than leading the points. That's why it was important for Edwards to make the decision that not only stabilized his future but protected all he's built this season, given how difficult it is to get to the point where he is now. That's why re-signing with Roush Fenway was the only real choice he had to make.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.