Jimmie Johnson may have hoisted up his seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship trophy at the end of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, but he wasn’t the only one who looked like a champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Carl Edwards made sure of that.
Somehow, some way, Edwards’ bitter championship loss on Sunday managed to look even more heartbreaking than his 2011 tiebreaker defeat at the hands of the now-retired Tony Stewart.
Edwards didn’t have the best car on the track –that honor went to Kyle Larson, who led a race-high 132 laps– but the Missouri native’s No. 19 ARRIS Toyota proved to be the best of the Championship 4 throughout the season finale.
Edwards’ strong ride, paired with the efforts of his pit crew, left the 37-year-old leading the inside lane going into what appeared to be the race’s final restart on lap 258.
Led by Larson on the outside, Edwards was forced to drive defensively on the restart to attempt to maintain track position. When fellow Championship 4 contender Joey Logano dove his No. 22 Ford under the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Edwards swung low to block him.
Edwards continued to block Logano all the way to the 1.5-mile track’s infield, a move he afterwards defended. But when Logano elected not to lift off the throttle, the two made contact that sent Edwards crashing hard into the inside wall before veering up the track and causing a crash that took out a litany of drivers including Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex, Jr.
Edwards’ race would end where his No. 19 Toyota stopped on-track, finishing 34th while Logano continued on to a fourth-place result.
However, while Edwards’ heartbreak marked the first time a Championship 4 contender has crashed out of the season finale, its what the Missouri native did next that he should ultimately be remembered for.
After emerging from his wrecked machine, Edwards walked (with a NASCAR official) from Turn 1 to pit road, continuing on until he came upon Logano’s pit stall. Edwards then climbed atop the pit box, wished the No. 22 team well and shook crew chief Todd Gordon’s hand.
In a moment where many teams and drivers would fight, pout or play the blame game, Edwards chose instead to confront the situation head-on with class.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 20, 2016
“I just wanted to make sure that they knew and they could tell Joey (Logano) – I don’t know if Joey cares or not – I assume he does, but I just wanted to make sure he knew that was just racing in my opinion and that’s hard racing and I wished them luck,” Edwards later said of the incident.
Afterwards, Edwards went on to field multiple questions from the media, keeping calm and making time for others amid what has to be one of the most disappointing moments of his 12-year Cup Series career.
Despite a heartbreaking loss, Edwards showed a level of grace and poise rarely seen from modern athletes. In the end, it even gained the respect of the driver he collided with.
“I think it’s really cool that he said that,” Logano said as he watched the moment on a television in Homestead’s media center. “Ironically, they’re playing it right now so I can watch it. It’s like they timed that on purpose. He’s a stand-up guy. Carl is a good person.”
Seeing Logano and Edwards showing a high level of mutual respect to each other following the race shouldn’t come as a surprise to most of the sport’s fans. In a world where so many athletes find themselves getting in trouble for drugs, feuds and fights, many of NASCAR’s top stars are regarded fondly for their humble nature.
It was frequently noted throughout the last week that this year’s Championship 4 contained no feuds. There were no “bad guys” in the group. Instead the storylines surrounding the four talented racers put emphasis on their battles on the track.
“I got to know all three of these drivers,” Logano said. ” I’ve known Kyle really well in the past, but to get to know Jimmie and Carl they’re three stand-up, good people.
“It’s hard to find that this day and age, especially in professional sports and especially at the top of professional sports. Usually, the ones that are the best aren’t the nicest of people, but in this case, this Championship 4 there were some really genuine people and we knew we were gonna have to race each other hard.”
The stories of most championships are told as much by those that lose them as they are by the team that wins. Often, athletes that lose on the big stage fall into the trap of their emotions and say and do things that they later regret.
On Sunday, NASCAR’s three big losers each handled their defeat with grace.
That NASCAR has such a great pool of drivers serving as ambassadors for the sport, even in their darkest moments, should be a source of pride for the organization.
Fans of Edwards should be proud of the way their driver conducted himself after a heartbreaking loss, and the rest of the sports world should take notice of the veterans decisions after his crash as a master class for handling defeat with courtesy and grace.
Because trophies last for a year, but respect? That lasts for a lifetime.