Friday October 31st, 2014

They call it a test. For star NASCAR driver Carl Edwards, the R&D gathering at Homestead-Miami Speedway that convened five days before this Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth was a big one indeed.

Though it was billed as a practice exercise—for scouting the Florida track that will decide the Cup series’ year-end champion—really, this was a final exam and in more ways than the obvious. Starting in 2015, teams will be forbidden by NASCAR edict from going on these kinds of reconnaissance missions. This put the racers in attendance along with Edwards, a group that included every driver who is still competing in the Chase for the Cup except for the second-ranked Ryan Newman, even more on edge than the high-pressure playoff system has already made them.

Along with the need to plot out the strategies that will be consulted in two weeks’ time, when Homestead goes from a data lab to the last proving ground of the 2014 season, there was the urgency to experiment with new engineering restrictions that likewise take effect next season. The setup practically begs the driver to look ahead. That comes naturally, of course.

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Edwards, though, couldn’t allow his vision to wander much beyond his front bumper. He’s determined to make the most of the little season he has left with Roush-Fenway Racing, but doing that means staying in the now. “I try very hard not to think about next year, not to talk about next year; the only time I really end up talking about it is with folks like you,” he says with a laugh. “I try to answer questions about it and then very quickly go right back to focusing on what I have to do this year. It sounds funny, but it’s hard for me to do because I’m a planner. Five or six years ago I would’ve already been working on next year.”

It’s not that Edwards, 35, has no future. A sixth-rated racer, he rather improbably remains among the last eight drivers running in the Chase. It’s just that for the first time in a decade his future will not involve any seat time inside the No. 99 Ford that he took over from Cup legend Jeff Burton in 2005 and has since guided to 23 victories.

Three months ago it was revealed that at season’s end Edwards will be terminating his partnership with Jack Roush, the only Sprint Cup owner he has ever known, to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing—with whom he has signed a multi-year deal. The decision, long speculated about in the motoring press, was something that Edwards had been turning over for months. The impetus? He wanted to try something new. But once he made up his mind to leave, he had another tough task ahead of him: breaking the news to his boss. “I didn’t know what was going to happen when I told Jack what my plans were,” he says. “I didn’t know if everything would fall apart.”

Breaking up is easy to do

Roush seemed to take the breakup well at first. When reporters tracked him down in the garage area of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a reaction, Roush started his comments by pronouncing Edwards “the cornerstone of our success.” But when the subject turned to compensation and whether Roush, who runs one of the flushest operations in racing, made much of a bid to keep his MVP in the fold, the owner struck a more defensive tone. “We made him an offer,” Roush said before launching into a half-hearted lament about how the prosperity of his rivals has made his team less attractive as consequence. “Cup racing is a big-time sports entertainment thing today. Like football and baseball, athletes move around.”

This is true. But in stick-and-ball sports those moves always happen during the off-season. In NASCAR, sponsorship dollars are too fluid to allow for such order. The urgency to dam them up quickly means racing’s hot stove period often happens while the hoods on the very cars that are about to become available are still warm to the touch.

It’s a business model that doesn’t get any traction outside of the track. In fact, you could argue that the big four pro leagues—the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL—organized themselves as monopolies precisely to keep the free market chaos that pervades motorsports from encroaching on their turfs. Imagine if stars in other sports were as unrestricted in their movements as race car drivers are. If you thought your favorite quarterback might’ve dialed down his intensity level after signing an extension with his own team at midseason, how much more committed to the cause do you suspect he might be if he was assured a long-term contract with a conference rival? Senioritis would grind all the games we love to a screeching halt.

Actually, it’s astonishing that Edwards’s season hasn’t stopped short. But here he is, still pushing even after handing in his two-weeks’ notice early. After earning his way into the Chase with victories at Bristol and Sonoma, Edwards has advanced deeper into the bracket that many expected.

It was thought that NASCAR’s freshly updated playoff format—which breaks down the season’s final nine races before Homestead into a trio of three-race mini-seasons—would work against Edwards, whose Ford has not been the fastest of late. And yet he has survived nonetheless by managing his car and driving smarter than hard, keeping his car among the top-20 in the early events while saving his top-10 finishes for the cut-off races. “This system definitely puts our No. 99 team in position to win, much better than the old system—much better than any other system,” Edwards says. “We’ve not been as good as Brad Keselowski and some of these other guys. We have an opportunity in that every three weeks we stay in the stay in the Chase, the points are back to zero and we’re leading. I think this system has to be terribly frustrating for Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson—guys who have run very well all year and then run into problems over a three race span.”

All about team

If Jack Roush (left) is angry at Edwards for leaving, he hasn't shown it.
AP Photo/John Raoux

Edwards has survived thanks to his Roush teammates—led by Roush himself and crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who have not wavered in their support of him. “Literally everyone has rallied and said, ‘Next year is next year; we’re gonna give you 100%,’” says Edwards, adding that the team hasn’t bumped down his security clearance despite the risk of him bolting to Gibbs with their most treasured trade secrets. (Integrity on both sides keeps this threat level low.) “They’re not holding back their information. I mean, their professionalism is pretty amazing. And not just from Jack but from everybody. I’m hoping that we can continue that all the way to the end and give our best performance.”

Their best chance is on the 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth, where Edwards has won three times—which ties Johnson for the most ever. What’s more, Edwards has taken every route imaginable to Victory Lane. In 2005, his first full year driving Cup, he skated through on a late strategy gamble to pit for two tires. In the spring race in 2008, he dominated the field, building a staggering lead of more than seven seconds down the stretch. In the fall 2008 race, he gambled again—on fuel—and hit the jackpot.  

These triumphs also testify to the importance of teamwork, a lesson that Edwards didn’t immediately appreciate when he was younger. “There was a time, for probably the first three or four years when I was driving for Jack in the Cup series where I really didn’t understand how much my success was based on other people’s contributions,” he says. “When I stepped into the No. 99 car, Jeff Burton told me, ‘Carl, we’ve been working on a lot of stuff. You’re gonna do really well in this car.” And I thought, Ok, cool. I’m a good driver. You’re right. I’m gonna do great.

“In 2005 we won four races. I was on top of the world. I thought, Man, I’ve got this figured out. Well, the next year people on the team left, there wasn’t that real cohesion, and we struggled while Jeff went on to win a bunch of races over at Richard Childress Racing. All of a sudden I became extremely aware that it was not based on my talent alone. I’ve come to really appreciate the people that make all this happen.”

Put Roush at the top of that list. Eleven years ago he took a chance on a young driver from Columbia, Mo., who was more qualified to tow cars—which he famously did while attending the University of Missouri—than race them. Seven truck series starts, one of which culminated in a top-10, was all Roush needed to see before poaching Edwards to drive one of his rigs. Never mind that Roush didn’t even have a sponsor for it just yet. It was the same such story when Roush called on Edwards again to drive the No. 99 car in the Cup series. “I don’t know how many millions of dollars that cost him,” Edwards says. “Forever, my life, my career will be tied to Jack Roush.”

A series championship would make for quite a thank-you. No driver has gone on to win the Chase after announcing his departure. And yet there’s no escaping the feeling that Edwards—even though he is 15 points behind future JGR teammate Matt Kenseth for the last spot in the final round with two races to go—could be the first, especially if Texas succumbs to him again.

Each time he’s prevailed there he’s gone on to finish second in the year-end standings. In fact, that first Texas win back in ’05 broadened his horizons in so many ways. But a single moment, one that came long after he yielded to Victory Lane tradition and donned a cowboy hat and fired a pair of revolvers as fireworks screamed into the night sky, stands out. “After the victory lane stuff,” Edwards recalls, “somebody said, ‘Hey, there’s a helicopter still here. We could give you a ride to the airport.’ And I thought, That’s great! I don’t have to sit in traffic!

“So we take off, and as far as I could see up and down I-35 and Highway 114, right in front of the racetrack, there are miles and miles of taillights. There were 215,000 fans leaving, and as far as the eye could see it was taillights. And I thought, I can’t believe a couple years ago I was racing in front of 150 people at my local racetrack, and I’m leaving this racetrack in a helicopter and every single one of those people leaving knows that we won this race. I took a mental picture. The whole scene was just unbelievable.”

Edwards would love nothing more than to finish his Roush tenure with a bang. That way, their partnership would be assured of passing one of the few tests NASCAR will proctor beyond Homestead—the test of time.

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