Second chances are rare with major life decisions. Sorry, Cinderella, but if you say “no” to the guy who brings that glass slipper, he won’t be around with a ring three months later. Life is far from fairy tale perfect, unlike a constant stream of Choose Your Own Adventures where few choices ever get a “redo” button.
Carl Edwards, one of the smartest men in the NASCAR garage surely understands that. It was just three years ago the athlete was faced with a difficult decision: sign a new three-year deal with Roush Fenway at age 32, or jump over to Joe Gibbs Racing and start over – leaving the only Cup team he’d ever driven for. JGR, aligned with Toyota, was in perfect position for long-term success after a year removed from a title push with Denny Hamlin and looking to perfect their three-car operation by replacing the struggling Joey Logano with Edwards. It’s the LeBron-style, Miami Heat-on-a-platter option most athletes get just once, with their careers shorter than most marriages, and retirement creeping up quicker than most people finish paying off their student loans.
Edwards, loyal to the manufacturer and the man Jack Roush who brought him here, chose to stay the course with his No. 99 Ford. Money, as it does in this business centric world did play a part; Blue Oval executives, well aware of Edwards’ crossover appeal, not just as a racer but also in the boardroom, felt like losing him could cost millions in sponsorship and branding. At the heart of it all, though was a simple thought process for an athlete who tries to keep his life, still based in the small-town Missouri world he grew up in, as simplistic as possible: the grass is not always greener on the other side.
At the time, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was in a seemingly lifelong struggle to stay relevant at Hendrick Motorsports, a few years after ditching Dale Earnhardt, Inc. to “start over” with the best organization in sports. Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski were both struggling, changing course mid-stream despite long-term career paths mapped out for them. Starting from scratch, away from the only crew chief that delivered long-term success (Bob Osborne) and without the clear-cut label of #1 driver was not a rubber-stamp, guaranteed alternative. At the time, the No. 99 was in the hunt for a championship and cutting the cord then, with the team in such a rhythm could easily cost Edwards a one-time opportunity.
So, he stayed. Stuck through a 2011 campaign that, if not for a single pass missed by Tony Stewart at any of the final ten races that year would have ended in a title. Edwards seemed poised to be the face of Ford, with Roush in position to be its torchbearer for years to come. Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and newcomer Trevor Bayne provided both diversity in opinions and veteran stability needed to for success.
And then, it all blew up. Aflac, which reportedly paid $26 million a year chose not to renew its deal for 2012. The face of a manufacturer, since then, has sometimes needed Ford to pony up individual race sponsorship money in order to keep the No. 99 from a full-scale blank hood. Roush wanted top dollar for its top man, prices that just wouldn’t work for any driver in this NASCAR economy (see: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.).
On-track, Edwards’ performance took a dip. He missed the Chase in 2012, perhaps the most difficult season of his career and crew chief Osborne was reassigned. Last year, he won twice but was dead last in the 13-driver Chase and really never consistent enough to be a true factor. It was a swing-and-miss twice, with the added expectation of being Ford’s front man on his shoulders; bad races simply led to more frustration. And then, the Blue Oval crowd went out and recruited the next Carl Edwards: Brad Keselowski, the 2012 champ, as the new knight atop a Penske Racing armor. Since their arrival, Roush Fenway has been the dutiful assistant, providing the horsepower needed for Ford’s new frontline operation to consider themselves a success story.
Which brings us to 2014, Edwards once again on the upswing but faced with the exact same decision. JGR, still there, believes in his talent and knows how to rebuild a career. After all, former teammate Kenseth got fed up with Roush in 2012, went there and is a year removed from an almost championship (the irony!). JGR is set up to contend, but seems to have slipped this season without enough resources and teams to bounce ideas off at Toyota. A fourth team, bringing them up to par with rival Hendrick Motorsports, would fix that. Edwards has been their focal point for several months. Sunday, we realized exactly how much, as the driver announced his departure from Roush Fenway with a “deal” he’ll be allowed to reveal sometime in the next few months. Let’s put it this way: a first-grader could put the pieces together and solve the mystery of where Edwards lands next.
And, like the driver said himself on Sunday, is that change really a bad thing? Imagine yourself in the driver’s shoes now. You’re 35, in a sport getting younger, one whose list of long-term car owners is increasingly uncertain. You stayed the course for three years – heck, almost a decade – to pursue your dream of a championship but couldn’t get it done. Loyalty is nice, but you’ve been loyal, for over a decade and look more like the next Mark Martin than Jimmie Johnson. How many more chances are you going to get? Can you get any chances with this team, now potentially second in command at Ford over the next three years?
All these questions are bouncing around in your head, and then Joe Gibbs Racing comes calling. It’s the same money, some of the same people, and the same belief system you had in 2011. Perhaps a small part of you has always wondered what it would be like to jump towards that grass. The rare, second chance has arrived, the glass slipper waiting at the doorstep.
Can you really fault Edwards for changing his mind this time?