20 years ago, Carl Edwards walked around telling his world he’d rise to the top in NASCAR.
No one believed him.
20 years later, Edwards walked to the podium, an established NASCAR star and told the world he was walking away.
No one wanted to believe him.
Yet here he was, the opening act of a cool winter morning at Joe Gibbs Racing headquarters Wednesday that revolved around closing the book on driving a race car. Edwards, a fitness fanatic, is just 37 years old and sitting in peak mental and physical shape. Yet here he was, mere months removed from a championship bid telling the assembled media his time was up.
“I really believe it’s the right thing,” he explained. “I feel strongly about it. I’m very confident.”
Just like that, the salesman who brought his business card to the garage, hoping against hope for NASCAR rides was now selling the media on “retirement.” The reasons given were simple. He wanted more time with family. He was healthy. And despite multiple title bids that ended just short, still without a Cup championship he looked back on his career and… smiled.
“I’ve accomplished more than I ever dreamed of accomplishing,” he said, emotional at times during the session. “I have the satisfaction that I don’t know how to express, and it’s because it’s been such a challenge. You guys know how that is. You guys have all — everybody in this room has worked hard at something and been nervous and insecure but kept digging and learned all those lessons, and then you get to a point where you’re like, I’ve done this. This is great. That is way more than I ever expected. So yeah, I’m very satisfied with that.”
For some, this announcement will be hard to accept. Athletes walk away from their peak after winning a title. John Elway did it. Michael Jordan. Peyton Manning. Others are forced to the sideline when injury or ill health simply takes over.
Carl Edwards? There was none of that. He just woke up, looked around and said, “It’s time.”
Why now? Such criticism is fair. Even if there were doubts, concerns about health after watching Dale Earnhardt, Jr. struggle through post-concussion syndrome Edwards’ deal ran only through 2017. ARRIS has put a lot of money and effort behind reigning XFINITY champ Daniel Suarez; there could have been a seamless transition. Edwards would have one last shot at a title, near the top of his game paired with perhaps the best crew chief connection he’s had in Dave Rogers.
But to term the decision as selfish means you don’t understand what makes him tick. This moment, this decision was vintage Edwards. He follows his gut.
“In my mind,” the driver explained, “I’d considered next year being my final year, but after Homestead, I had some time to sit, think and reflect about all of this, and for those three reasons that I gave you, I thought, man, it just — I can’t come up with a good reason why now isn’t a good time.”
So he did it. Boom. Toyota lost a star, NASCAR lost its third big-time wheelman in as many years (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart) and stock car racing lost one of its smartest, classiest people. Mucho respect for him standing up, taking ownership and not wasting any time in life.
Yet for most of the past 48 hours, after learning about this news I struggled. I was one of those who didn’t quite understand.
It took watching Edwards gracefully answering questions, explaining his reasoning for it to finally click. I think it was the moment his voice quivered, tears to his eyes when someone asked about his perception as a role model.
“It’s very flattering,” Edwards said of the praise last November in which good sportsmanship dominated the aftermath of his championship win-turned-wreck with Joey Logano. “I just want to be a good person, you know. It’s important to me to be – to do the right thing.”
Finally, the one word I’d always use to describe this man came to the forefront of my mind. It’s a word we don’t prescribe to many athletes these days.
Edwards, raised a Midwestern boy from Missouri never strayed far from his roots. I learned that early in our off-the-record conversations, years ago when I was a newbie journalist. We connected on two things, right off the bat; beating to the beat of your own drummer and relishing a separate, private life we enjoyed away from NASCAR’s Charlotte epicenter.
And boy, did Edwards love home. He almost always flew from Missouri, whether with Roush or Gibbs each week for team meetings and chose to live where he felt happy. It’s a place he’s treated as a normal human being, not a larger-than-life star and I firmly believe that commitment helped keep him humble. It’s a great support network up there, starting first with wife Kate and the kids while drifting down to longtime friends and family that would never let Edwards get too full of himself.
Such loyalty, when inspired by those around you can trickle down into the workplace. You don’t see many short-term acquaintances around Carl in this garage area. His right-hand PR man, Randy Fuller, has been around now for over a decade. Keep in mind even his move to JGR happened the second time they came calling, not the first. Despite the cracks in Jack Roush’s foundation he chose his first car owner, re-signing in 2011 and then staying the full three years despite the team’s downturn in performance. He gave it 110 percent, tying Tony Stewart for the title in ’11 just months after muddling through those negotiations.
Those early connections for Edwards have been some of his strongest and contributed to a steady confidence that’s endured. It’s the perfect mix of public and private, off-track personality plus on-track success that made Fortune 500 companies drool at the right time.
That’s not say Edwards was perfect. He wasn’t. At times, the story was a tumultuous relationship with competitors, even teammates that he sometimes didn’t feel the need to cozy up to. He and Matt Kenseth had a public squabble while together at Roush. You had the revenge flip of Brad Keselowski at Atlanta, more contact mere months after their Talladega wreck of ’09 and there was no love lost between he and Kevin Harvick.
“I have been a self-centered jerk at times,” he exclaimed. “I know that. That’s been pointed out to me by multiple teammates.
“I learned a lot from my competitors, truly. That’s one of the only things I wish I would have done a little better; as I’ve become closer with a lot of these guys, I think there is more to learn from one another.”
You saw that maturity in those final years, a next-level commitment to his teammates at JGR which nearly paid off in a title trophy. Edwards can still rest on laurels that, to me qualify him for the Hall of Fame someday. There’s 28 wins, 22 poles, an XFINITY title and over $80 million in winnings.
But perhaps the biggest victory of all is that Edwards does remain fully intact, happy and healthy entering his post-athlete life. Someone who I firmly believed could have gotten a Ph. D had he chosen to, Edwards will have an impact in whatever he chooses to do. I could see a gym business, politics, broadcasting, car ownership, all future prospects that have been rumored.
He will take the time to figure all of that out, handling it the right way just like he took the time today to answer every question to the best of his ability. It’s a personality that wasn’t always understood, wasn’t always appreciated until perhaps the very end but will absolutely be sorely missed.
“I am so fortunate,” he said in closing Wednesday. “I’ve had the most support ever. I think everything happens for a reason, I really do.”
And with that, reasons turned into reality. Edwards walked off the stage no longer an active racer.
This chapter was complete.