Carl Edwards should take away a lot of good memories from his 2016 season. From dominant victories to comeback performances, from thrilling finishes to his first appearance in the Championship Round of the Chase, Edwards’s second season with Joe Gibbs Racing was a step forward from his up-and-down 2015 campaign. Yet amid all those positive moments, the gut-wrenching end of Edwards’ championship quest is probably the biggest memory that will linger in the minds of fans until the No. 19 team takes the green flag at Daytona.
Edwards showed speed early and often in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With 25 laps to go, Edwards passed fellow championship contender Kyle Busch to take the top spot among the four remaining Chasers. As the number of laps left dwindled, Edwards appeared to be on the way to his first championship at NASCAR’s highest level. Then with 16 circuits remaining, Dylan Lupton slowed on the backstretch with a flat tire, bringing out the caution flag.
The leaders came to pit road, and Edwards’ crew reeled off a superb stop. The No. 19 team held second place. With race leader Kyle Larson selecting the outside line, Edwards lined up beside Larson on the inside. Joey Logano, another Championship 4 contender, started directly behind Edwards.
When the race restarted with 10 laps to go, Logano got a great restart and tried to pass the No. 19. Edwards turned left to block. The two cars made contact, and suddenly, both drivers slid toward the inside wall. Edwards got the worst of the incident, hitting the wall nose first, only to slide back across the track and get slammed by Kasey Kahne. One restart gone wrong was all it took to destroy the No. 19 Edwards’ championship hopes.
He might have lost an opportunity to win the title, but that season-ending crash should not overshadow the strong performance of the Missouri native in 2016. He won more than two races for the first time since 2008, and his 18 top 10 finishes were his best since 2011. An impressive six pole positions also helped Edwards to earn a best-ever average starting position of 7.2.
The No. 19 team was particularly strong through the first quarter of the season. Beginning with a comeback top five finish in the Daytona 500. Edwards then claimed top 10s in eight of the first nine races. He and Kevin Harvick put on a great show at Phoenix, racing to the checkered flag in a door-slamming finish that resulted in Harvick taking the victory by .010 seconds. At Texas Motor Speedway, Edwards led 124 laps before a loose wheel took him out of contention. The team rebounded to finish seventh, but Edwards was still looking for his first win of the year. In the next two races, he would get two of them.
The first win came at Bristol Motor Speedway, with Edwards starting on the pole and leading 276 laps. While Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, and Chase Elliott all duked it out for second in the closing laps, Edwards scampered away to claim his fourth win at the Tennessee short track.
A week later at Richmond, Edwards once again led the most laps with 151. However, the No. 19 was running second to Kyle Busch in the final minutes of the race. On the last lap, Edwards pulled right up to Busch’s back bumper in turn two. After tailing the No. 18 down the backstretch, Edwards nudged his JGR teammate out of the way in turn three. Busch slid up the track, allowing Edwards to make the pass and claim the win. With two victories to his credit, Edwards took over the points lead.
The next week at Talladega, a crash broke Edwards’ momentum and left him with his first of six DNFs of the season. While the No. 19 team fought back and continued to perform well during the summer, Edwards lost the speed advantage that he had enjoyed at the beginning of the year. At Phoenix, Texas, Bristol, and Richmond, Edwards led a combined total of 616 laps. For the rest of the regular season, he led only 116. After looking like a potential championship favorite in the spring, Edwards appeared to have cooled off.
During the Chase, Edwards collected enough points during the Round of 16 to stay in the game. He got tangled up in the big restart crash at Charlotte, but only took on minor damage. With a 12th place finish, Edwards was certainly not on the brink of elimination. Yet he was not looking like a championship threat either.
Then the tide began to turn. Edwards had a great showing at Kansas, leading 61 laps and finishing second. Sitting at 24 points above the Chase cutoff, Edwards played it safe and smart at Talladega by staying at the back of the pack and out of trouble. A 29th place finish was good enough to get Edwards to the Round of 8.
One week later at Martinsville Speedway, disaster struck. Edwards blew a tire on a long green flag run and slammed the wall, crumpling his Toyota. The accident left Edwards with a 36th place finish and below the Chase cut line by 32 points. Although it was not a mathematical necessity, Edwards’ Chase hopes rested on him winning one of the next two races.
When NASCAR returned to Texas the next week, Edwards showed he was fast once again. He spent most of the race running behind either Logano or Martin Truex Jr., the two fastest cars. However, Edwards’ crew pulled off a quick pit stop during a late caution period that allowed him to take the lead. After the green flag dropped, Edwards held Logano and Truex at bay for the next 30 laps until another caution came out for rain. With the track soaked and the race only 40 laps from completion, NASCAR declared the race official and Edwards the winner. It was his third victory of the year, and it guaranteed his passage to the Championship Round. A year after a rain-shorted race at Phoenix ended Edwards’ title dreams, the rain came just in time to help him in 2016.
Homestead, of course, did not go Edwards’ way. While he may not have won the championship, Edwards should be commended for his sportsmanship, chalking up the incident on the restart to hard racing. In fact, Edwards seemed more frustrated by the caution that bunched the field back up in the first place.
It was a rough way to end a good season, one that will hopefully be remembered, in time, for the things that went right. Edwards’ move to JGR continues to pay off, and the low-downforce package seemed to suit him well. Chances to race for a NASCAR championship do not come along every day, but as long as Edwards continues to perform at a high level, he will not run out of chances any time soon.