Listening to Jack Roush and Carl Edwards on Friday at Pocono talk about the most anticipated contract signing in recent NASCAR history, one would think one of two things. First, that the past months of courtship, rumors and that much-ballyhooed decision really weren’t all that dramatic, or second, damn if that didn’t feel rehearsed.
Let’s face the facts. The ultimate result of Silly Season’s most dramatic episode to date was that Carl Edwards re-signed a contract with the only team for which he’s ever driven, a team that’s he leading the points with and on which he is the A driver. The words “no brainer” come to mind here, the type of “no brainer” that doesn’t take the better part of a season to decide on. For crying out loud, the only viable alternative that Edwards had available to his home at Roush was a seat at Joe Gibbs Racing. Sure, the equipment over there is great, and between both Home Depot sponsorship and Toyota factory backing, there was plenty of money available to sign one of the sport’s biggest stars.
But does anyone really think that Edwards — a driver that has been the marquee for the Roush camp ever since storming to victory at Atlanta back in 2005 — was going to move to JGR and team up with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin? Two drivers, that if not the A drivers at JGR, certainly have the ego to fit the bill? Short of fast race cars, a JGR/Edwards feeling was incongruous at best, a poorly veiled attempt to up the asking price at its worst. Speaking of those cars, performance-wise even the vaunted No. 18 Toyota hasn’t been superior to Roush’s Fords this year.
Sticking with the garage and the racing, Edwards staying in the No. 99 at Roush Fenway was all but a foregone conclusion. Yet this one went down to the wire, as the points-leading team suffered through a month filled with distractions during the crucial buildup stages to the Chase before any sort of decision was finally reached. Meaning, despite all the insistence of both driver and owner to the contrary, this was not a mutual decision made based solely on respect and loyalty to each other and the Blue Oval. Deals like that go down with handshakes, not with carefully controlled press releases and scheduled press conferences in early August.
Fact is, anyone that was there or listening to the twenty minutes or so Roush and Edwards spent saying as little as they could in as many words as possible cannot escape the obvious; there was absolutely nothing in the dialogue that transpired which had not been rehearsed or considered prior to facing the press. Because, first and foremost, Edwards made a point to put the media in their place.
How? His remarks in answering the day’s first three questions included the following statements:
“Contrary to what a lot of you guys thought, the process went pretty well.”
“I looked at a lot of things, but, at the end of the day, our negotiations and our deals and the things that I look at competitively are private matters and I appreciate you guys respecting that.”
And, “I learned a lot…about you guys in the media,” noting that he spoke to a number of the assembled reporters in the room about his decision. Notice the sequence? The media was wrong. The media that left me alone was right to do so. I involved the media I wanted to involve in making my decision. Edwards wasn’t asking questions during the Friday presser, but there’s no doubt who was controlling the room. There’s no doubt that he and Roush did a masterful job of it, because at the end of the day, both driver and owner emerged smelling like roses from a process that, if it was as simple as they asserted, would have ended in May.
Just look at how in a span of three sentences, Edwards went from confirming that he had talked to a number of drivers and media members alike about his decision, only to then say, “What I did from the beginning of this is I said, ‘what would I do if money weren’t a factor and what would I do if I didn’t care what one person thought about my decision?’” Sounds like exactly the type of behavior that a person who both asked reporters for advice and thanked them for privacy would exhibit. Not to mention that Roush went completely out of his way to deliver an unprompted follow-up confirming Edwards’ assertion that money played absolutely no role in his decision-making process, after going out of his way to retract comments made about stock options that reportedly did play not just a role, but a major one, in keeping the house of Roush intact.
Review the transcripts in their entirety. There’s not a single element of this entire marathon negotiation that paints either in a negative light. Jack Roush states, “The fact is, we don’t have a weakness,” when describing his race team. Edwards’ decision was made on his own as his own agent, and based not on money or stock options but solely on his loyalty to Ford and his belief in their products. It’s the kind of story that makes for great PR… because based on the delivery seen on Friday, it was obviously written by PR reps. Everything is great, nothing went wrong, and ignore the fact it only took longer to sign on the dotted line than it took Congress to raise the debt ceiling.
There’s two realities to consider here. One is that Carl Edwards is among, if not the, best driver in the Cup garage when it comes to managing an image. This is a driver that for all his reputation as an aw shucks, friendly guy, has been involved in as many dust-ups and scuffles as any other competitor at this level of stock car racing. This is a driver that for all his reputation as being an advocate for driver development has been the literal face of Cup regulars crushing NASCAR’s driver development network for the better part of a decade. This is a driver that has kept major sponsors after intentionally and dangerously wrecking a rival twice in the past year-plus, nearly causing him serious injury yet has maintained an enormous fan base despite tangling with other names like Harvick, Busch, and even Earnhardt Jr.
The other reality is that Edwards is a professional athlete, and a star one at that. Like it or not, there is an obscene amount of money to be made and paid in professional sports these days. Edwards has a growing family to take care of, so who in the world can fault him for taking dollars into consideration?
Problem is, a story of Edwards playing the contract game, floating his name out there, letting his stock rise and ultimately securing a sweetheart deal that makes him the highest paid driver in the Ford Racing camp flies smack in the face of the down-to-earth, genuine profile that he has worked so hard to maintain. It won’t work… so he didn’t let it happen. Simple as that.
The crazy thing about it all is that Edwards really _is_ among the more genuine figures in NASCAR racing today. The angry outbursts the man has demonstrated make clear there is serious emotion running through his veins. The backflips, the voyages into throngs of fans in the grandstands after winning… anyone that doubts Edwards takes real joy in such exhibitions has never seen the man in Victory Lane. I can safely say that Edwards is one of only a handful of drivers at any level of racing that made a point to introduce himself to me rather than the other way around. Agree or disagree with his conduct behind the wheel, there’s a great deal of public perception surrounding Cousin Carl that is very, very accurate.
Which is exactly why Edwards’ remarks about his contract renegotiation rang as hollow as they did. They weren’t genuine, which he does best. Instead, they were a calculated instance of trying to have cake and eat it, too. Maintain Edwards as the smiling, happy face of Ford, a driver that would never dream of going anywhere else or driving a Toyota while drawing no attention to the fact that, at the end of the day, the past three months have been an exercise of a celebrity negotiating just how many millions he would take home while working a dream job.
Like it or not, that’s sports these days. Athletes make good money. Stars make great money.
Carl Edwards is both. He may still be in many ways that good guy from the Midwest that truly does care for his myriad of fans. But he’s also a millionaire that played the same contract game all pro athletes, from the NFL to the NBA, continually play.
It’s a shame a guy so genuine couldn’t summon a little bit of that up when it came to discussing his future as a racer, a sponsor rep, and a hero to many.
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