Column: Carl Edwards leaves just as he competed — with class

It’s 6:16 p.m. on November 20, 2016.

On a restart with 10 laps to go in the Ford EcoBoost 400 and the season, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano approach Homestead-Miami Speedway’s first turn, fighting for the race and championship leads.  Logano dives to the inside, Edwards blocks.  Edwards’ left-rear hits Logano’s right-front, hooking Edwards to the left, and he hits the wall head-on.

Edwards has every right to be frustrated, as the accident prevents him from potentially winning his first Cup Series title.  And yet, while his disappointment is apparent in post-race interviews, he shows no ill will towards Logano, even stopping at Logano’s pit to shake crew chief Todd Gordon’s hand and wish the team good luck in the remaining laps.

No one (including Edwards himself) knew at the time that Edwards’ incredible class, even in the face of heartbreak, would be the final image of his stellar career.

But Wednesday, the 37-year old Edwards announced he is stepping away from NASCAR, effective immediately.  Edwards said he came to the decision after the season, giving three well-thought-out reasons.

Three Reasons Why

First, Edwards is legitimately satisfied with his career accomplishments, even without a Cup Series title on his resume.  Edwards said that, to him, the competition in NASCAR was about more than winning, but the journey.

“Going through that whole process and becoming a better person, a stronger person, a better competitor, a better teammate, a better friend to people, that’s a big deal to me, and I feel accomplished,” Edwards said.

Secondly, Edwards said that while racing has been all-encompassing, physically and mentally, for the last 20 years of his life (13 in the Cup Series), it is necessary to devote his time and energy to other interests.

“I need to take that time right now and devote it to people and things that are important to me, things I’m really passionate about,” Edwards said.

Lastly, Edwards is 100 percent healthy, and wants to keep it that way in the short- and long-term.  Edwards does not appear scared, but is instead simply acknowledging that continuing to drive at the highest level could potentially be a risk to his health.

“Like anybody in a contact sport, I realize that there might be long-term consequences to that stuff, and that’s a piece of the puzzle,” Edwards said.

What’s Next

Edwards came to his decision after this season, and said that after considering his reasoning, he couldn’t think of a good reason why not to walk away now, and said that, in following his gut, he has no regrets.

“This is a pure, simple, personal decision, and for that I’m grateful,” Edwards said.

In his post-race interview at Homestead, Edwards clearly had not yet made this decision, as he pointed to the future after the tough break that cost him the 2016 title.

“This team is going to be on fire next year,” Edwards said.  “You watch out.  It’s going to be awesome.”

Perhaps he’s right — 2016 XFinity Series champion Daniel Suarez will take his place in the #19 Toyota, and is an immediate threat to qualify for the Chase for the Cup.

Edwards would not use “the R word” to describe his decision to walk away, because he is open to the possibility of potentially driving part-time in the future, saying his first call in such a situation would be Joe Gibbs, the car owner he drove for in 2015-16.

“If it comes up and the right opportunity is there and at that moment, it’s the right thing, then for sure I’d entertain it,” he said.

Outside of racing, Edwards has no specific plans, although the uncertainty doesn’t bother him.

“That’s one of the beauties about this decision,” Edwards said.  “I don’t have a there’s no life raft I’m jumping onto. I’m just jumping. And in a way, it makes it easier, because I’m not being swayed by some carrot out here, something going on.

“I don’t really have that all figured out yet, and to me that’s okay.  I’m at peace with that. I know if I lay out those three reasons that I listed, if you put those together, you add them up, it adds up to this. This is the right thing.”

Class at Every Turn

Edwards entered the Cup Series in 2004 with Roush Racing and drove #99 Ford for the team until the end of the 2014 season, before moving to Gibbs for his final two seasons.

The Columbia, Missouri native won 28 races in 445 starts, finishing second in points in 2008 and 2011, and leading the championship with 10 to go in 2016 before the crash with Logano.  Edwards also won 38 races and the 2007 championship in the XFinity Series, running both XFinity and Cup full-time for seven seasons.

But the lasting impression of Edwards career is the class and dignity with which he competed, something not lost on Edwards himself at Wednesday’s press conference.  After a reporter remarked that Edwards had seemed to compete with a Midwestern mentality of work hard, be kind to others, and your reputation will follow, Edwards got choked up at the compliments given to his character.

“It’s important to me… to do the right thing,” Edwards said.  “I do not always do the right thing, and just like anyone, there are things I wish I could do over, and that’s that.”

Edwards said he was “a jerk” at times in his career, yet I can’t recall a time in his career when Edwards didn’t handle himself in the usual professional, classy way that became the trademark of his career, a refreshing departure from an age of several star drivers with an arrogant and self-centered streak.

When he was upset over on-track events — and I can’t remember a time in his career when such frustration wasn’t justified — he didn’t lash out publicly at his rivals but typically dealt with the situation professionally, behind closed doors.

When he won, Edwards visibly had a blast, performing his unique backflip celebration, but applauded the competition on a good race and humbly accepted the congratulations of his peers.  When he had heartbreaking losses, he tipped his cap to those who beat him, often personally congratulating the victor.

It was one of those heartbreaking losses at Homestead that will now go down as (at least for now) his final Cup Series start.

While the result of a 34th-place finish is not indicative of Edwards’ ability on the track throughout his career, the grace and sportsmanship Edwards showed in defeat is an appropriate end to his career.

I was watching the Ford EcoBoost 400 at the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s race-viewing party, and after Edwards’ interview with NBC’s Kelli Stavast, the assembled crowd applauded the class Edwards showed in possibly the toughest defeat of his life.

That applause can now be extended to cover Edwards’ entire career.  Even as Edwards is walking away at a surprisingly young age, he has nothing to regret as he looks back over his career.

After doing things the right way from start to finish, Edwards walks away just as he drove, showing class and dignity at every turn.




Carl Edwards Career Statistics (Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
445 starts
28 wins
124 top fives
223 top 10s
22 poles
14.2 average start
13.6 average finish
127,758 laps
6,136 laps led
2008 & 2011 Cup Series runner-up
38 XFinity Series wins
2007 XFinity Series champion

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