Edwards’ Departure will have Major Ripple Effect

The term “bombshell” tends to get overused in the world of professional sports.  However, there is no better way to describe the news that Carl Edwards will not compete in NASCAR in 2017.  Following rumors that began circulating on Tuesday, Edwards officially announced on Wednesday morning that he would not be driving the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing in the upcoming season.  Edwards gave three reasons for stepping away from the driver’s seat: he feels fulfilled by his career, he wants to focus on other things, and he wants to enjoy his good health.  Following Edwards’ announcement, JGR presented reigning XFINITY Series champion Daniel Suarez as Edwards’ replacement.

The Wednesday press conference helped to clarify why Edwards, at age 37 and still very capable of winning races and perhaps a championship, opted not to continue his driving career.  Yet as the initial shock begins to wear off, the NASCAR world will see the ripple effect from Edwards’ announcement play out in several ways.

The most immediate questions concern the future of Suarez.  The 25-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico was all set to defend his XFINITY title in 2017. Now he gets to step into one of the premier rides in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.  The opportunity is a great one for Suarez, who was virtually unknown in the United States three years ago.  Such a quick advancement of a young driver through the ranks of NASCAR is always a little bit of a gamble.  However, Suarez has everything he needs to succeed with JGR.

Given the consistency that he showed last year, Suarez’s rookie season could look a lot like Chase Elliott’s.  While Elliott was unable to win in his rookie campaign, he displayed good consistency that resulted in a Chase berth.  Suarez’s ascension to the Cup Series might result in one less championship contender, but it would be a mistake to think that the No. 19 team has lost its chance to make the Chase.

Meanwhile, Suarez’s advancement leaves the plans for the No. 19 XFINITY car up in the air.  JGR is currently suggesting that Suarez will still run about 10 NXS events, with the possibility of MENCS drivers Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Denny Hamlin filling out the rest of the schedule.  If Busch, Kenseth, and Hamlin do make appearances in the XFINITY Series, they will be limited to ten races each by NASCAR’s new participation rules.  JGR will also have to figure out a plan for non-companion weekends and the XFINITY Chase races.  Expect to hear much more about the No. 19 XFINITY car in the coming weeks.

It is also likely that Erik Jones will feel the effects of Edwards’ departure.  Jones, JGR’s other rising star, competed as a teammate to Suarez in the XFINITY Series last year.  With no indications that there would be any driver changes on JGR’s Cup Series operation, Jones put together a deal to compete with Furniture Row Racing in the MENCS for 2017.  Yet Jones has not left the JGR fold.  Furniture Row became a satellite organization to JGR last year, and Jones’ deal with the team is allegedly for one year.  The plan to have Jones run his rookie season for FRR has all the makings of a temporary move.

However, the presence of Suarez in the Cup Series means that there is a little less flexibility with JGR’s driver lineup.  Busch is singed at least through 2019, and Hamlin is reportedly close to a contract extension of his own.  Therefore, the only landing place for Jones in the near future appears to be the No. 20 car.  Kenseth, the current driver, turns 45 in March.  There has been some speculation that Kenseth could soon retire, opening the door for Jones.  However, Kenseth himself has given no indication that he is close to hanging up his helmet.  Additionally, no one else at JGR has offered any evidence to suggest that Kenseth’s days with the team are numbered.

The most likely scenario is that Jones will stay at Furniture Row beyond 2017.  If so, the question then becomes how long Jones will wait for a seat to open up at JGR.  Suppose an organization like Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, or Team Penske offers Jones a boatload of money to stop waiting and take a ride with a totally new team?  Would Jones begin to believe that he might be better off seeking greener pastures?

Only time will tell what happens with Suarez and Jones, but at the moment, greener pastures, quite literally, could be on Edwards’ mind.  Nobody knows for sure what is in store for the 28-time winner.  Theories about Edwards’ future have included him becoming a commentator or even running for public office.  But the only real certainty is that Edwards will spend more time with his family.

Edwards may not be done racing either.  Joe Gibbs insisted that Edwards would remain part of the “family,” and Edwards likewise stated that he would contact Gibbs first if he ever wanted to race again.  Returning to JGR someday could be tricky, but just because the team is Edwards’ first choice does not mean that it would be his only choice.  If a team owner approached Edwards with the chance to run the Daytona 500, the thought of winning NASCAR’s biggest race could bring Edwards back.  It would also not be surprising if he returned to run the Eldora Truck Series race.  Edwards said on Wednesday that he was following his gut by stepping away and looking to do something new.  Until Edwards says that he is permanently retired a return to racing part-time could always be on the table.

Edwards departure, though shocking, is not unprecedented.  Ned Jarrett made his final start in NASCAR’s top series in 1966 at age 34, while he was the defending champion.  Junior Johnson made his last start in the same race at 35 years old.  Fred Lorenzen hung up his helmet for good at age 37, the same as Edwards.

Perhaps Edwards’ announcement is so surprising because, throughout the course of his own career, it was more common to see veteran stars of the sport race well into their 40s or even their 50s.  The first driver who will come to mind for most fans is Mark Martin, who made his last start in 2013 at age 54.  Martin, however, is hardly alone.  Bill Elliott ran his last race in 2012 at age 56.  Terry Labonte was 57 when he made his last start, and Ricky Rudd was 51.  Even Rusty Wallace, who had a much more definitive end to his NASCAR career than many of his contemporaries, ran his last race at age 49.

That trend could be in the process of changing.  In addition to Edwards, both Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart appear to have run their final races in NASCAR at age 45.  Could we look back on Edwards, Gordon, and Stewart one day as the beginning of a younger retirement age for drivers?  The rise of the “young guns” over the last 15-20 years seems to have permanently put NASCAR on course to have, on average, younger drivers.  With the former young guns now in their late 30s and early 40s, how many veterans of the sport will follow Edwards’ lead and walk away while they have the youth and the health to pursue other interests?  NASCAR’s next changing of the guard could pick up very quickly, if it already has not.

 

Raceway Memory Gallery: 2016 Quaker State 400 at Kentucky

As motorsports change over time, how fans experience them change, too.  The sights, sounds, and spectacle of a day at the races are what make motorsports special.  In fact, I think those experiences are worth preserving.

The goal of my Raceway Memory Series is to document the experiences of ordinary fans at the race track.  My hope is that, through the collection of photos, the memories that fans make on race day will last beyond the weekend.

View the full results for this race at Racing Reference.

If you would like to contribute to the Raceway Memory Collection, please see my Contributions Page.

 

Raceway Memory Gallery: 2016 Bank of America 500 at Charlotte

As motorsports change over time, how fans experience them change, too.  The sights, sounds, and spectacle of a day at the races are what make motorsports special.  In fact, I think those experiences are worth preserving.

The goal of my Raceway Memory Series is to document the experiences of ordinary fans at the race track.  My hope is that, through the collection of photos, the memories that fans make on race day will last beyond the weekend.

Finally, here is a clip of Jimmie Johnson’s celebration after winning the race.

 

View the full results of this race on Racing Reference.

If you would like to contribute to the Raceway Memory Collections, please see my Contributions Page.

 

 

Raceway Memory Gallery: 2016 STP 500 at Martinsville

As motorsports change over time, how fans experience them change, too.  The sights, sounds, and spectacle of a day at the races are what make motorsports special.  In fact, I think those experiences are worth preserving.

The goal of my Raceway Memory Series is to document the experiences of ordinary fans at the race track.  My hope is that, through the collection of photos, the memories that fans make on race day will last beyond the weekend.

View the full results for this race on Racing Reference.

If you would like to contribute to the Raceway Memory Collection, please see my Contributions Page.

Is Jimmie Johnson Really Like Richard Petty?

In a career full of major accomplishments, Jimmie Johnson might have achieved the biggest moment of them all last weekend.  By winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway and defeating the other drivers who reached the final round of the Chase, Johnson is now a seven-time Sprint Cup champion.  He is only the third driver in history, after Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, to reach seven titles in NASCAR’s top division.  One more championship by Johnson would break the three-way tie, giving him more premier series championships than anyone else.

Even before Johnson’s record-tying championship, he had already drawn a lot of comparisons to the men with seven titles.  In particular, observers of the sport have often identified Johnson as the modern-day version of Petty.  However, the reasons why Johnson is so often linked to The King are not always clear.  The obvious answer is that both drivers have won a lot of championships and are arguably the greatest racers of their ages.  Yet any real comparison between Petty and Johnson must go deeper.  Fortunately, the two drivers are similar for several other reasons.

In the first place, both Petty and Johnson have versatile driving styles that allow for great adaptability.  Petty was a regular competitor at NASCAR’s highest level in most seasons from 1959-1992.  The changes that the sport went through in that time were enormous, but Petty continually found ways to win.  The King was able to make the transition from dirt tracks to super speedways, from short tracks to longer, higher-speed ovals.  Amid changes to the cars, the crews, the race teams, the venues, the points system, and support from sponsors, Petty was able to come back year after year, from the late 50s through the mid 80s, and always be one of the drivers championship hopefuls had to beat.

Johnson has not raced in the Sprint Cup Series as long as Petty did, but he has seen plenty of changes throughout his career.  The biggest is probably the introduction of the Chase, compounded by NASCAR’s continued tinkering with the format every few years.  The sanctioning body has also rolled out the Car of Tomorrow and the Gen 6 car during Johnson’s time.  Throw in the ever-shifting aero package regulations, and NASCAR looks quite a bit different than it did in 2002.  One of the few constants is Johnson’s success.

Another similarity between the two racing legends is how often some fans will try to discredit their success.  The argument against Petty is that he took advantage of drivers in lesser equipment.  Competing against weaker fields thus inflates Petty’s numbers and makes his many records less impressive.  Meanwhile, fans use the Chase to diminish Johnson’s accomplishments.  They insist that the Chase’s emphasis on late-season races taint the overall value of Johnson’s championships.  Therefore, he can never be as great as the drivers who won championships over the course of a whole season with no points resets.  Both of these arguments have serious flaws.

Petty’s critics incorrectly assume that his team held a major advantage that it did not really have.  During the 60s, NASCAR’s Grand National Division was not the highly-organized, one race per week tour of today’s Sprint Cup Series.  As long as a track met the requirements of the sanctioning body and followed the rules, it could host a race for “Grand National points” that would count toward a year-long championship.  This policy often resulted in tracks hosting races several days apart, sometimes at opposite ends of the country.  Nobody expected one driver or team to show up at every race.  The teams themselves did not really have the resources to do so. However, the King was there for many of those races.

The fact that Petty was able to compete all over the United States makes his accomplishments more impressive.  In an era that placed comparatively little effort into driver safety or comfort, the amount of wear and tear that Petty put on his own body is unimaginable.  None of those wins were easy for The King to earn.  The desire to be the best in the business is what constantly pushed him to keep racing.

In Johnson’s case, his career numbers suggest that he would have been successful with or without the Chase.  Through 15 seasons, he has averaged 5.33 wins per year.  He is up to 80 wins overall, and except for Jeff Gordon, none of Johnson’s contemporaries have anywhere near that number.  In fact, with Gordon and Tony Stewart now retired, Johnson will be the only driver with multiple premier series championships on the grid in 2017.  Much like Petty, Johnson has reached a level of excellence that his competitors cannot match.

Addressing the Chase specifically, it is fair to point out how often Johnson’s success has come at the end of his championship years.  His lackluster performance during the middle part of this past season is a perfect example.  However, it should be abundantly clear that the Chase requires drivers to finish the year well in order to win the championship.  Whether or not the Chase is the proper way of determining a champion is a different discussion.  That debate should not be confused with one about Johnson’s abilities behind the wheel.  Just like Petty, Johnson’s competitive spirit pushes him to find ways to win.  How can anyone fault a driver for that?

It is also remarkable how much success both Petty and Johnson have had racing for one team.  All but four of Petty’s wins came with Petty Enterprises, while all of Johnson’s have come with Hendrick Motorsports.  This is another point of contention among fans.  Is Petty’s success due more to having an entire team built around him than his abilities alone?  Are Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus the true reason for Johnson’s accomplishments?  I say no to both questions.

Sure, Petty was and Johnson is blessed to have a great team and fast cars.  Yet it is also true that they were able to raise the profiles of their respective organizations.  Petty built on the accomplishments of his father, Lee, much like Johnson built on the accomplishments of Gordon.  Both Petty and Johnson have had enough success to prove that they are not run-of-the mill drivers who stumbled into a great situation.

Therefore, the comparison between Petty and Johnson is mostly a valid one.  Despite the major differences between Petty’s and Johnson’s NASCAR, both drivers have similarities that make them worthy of being considered two of NASCAR’s finest racers.

However, there is one major difference between Petty and Johnson.  For everything that they have in common, they are not the same type of ambassador for the sport.  A major aspect of Petty’s fame was how he built a strong relationship with the fans.  The King earned his crown by being successful on the track and popular off of it.  Because he set the standard for how a driver should treat fans, Petty was the face of NASCAR throughout his driving career.

Johnson, meanwhile, has a large and loyal fan base of his own.  He does not stir up a lot of controversy, nor does he get in trouble away from the track.  By all accounts, Johnson is a family man, a good role model, and someone who represents the sport very well.  He is not, however, the face of NASCAR.  In that regard, Gordon, Stewart, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have always overshadowed Johnson.  The King and the Intimidator captured the imagination of the fans in a way that their fellow seven-time champion, Johnson, never has.

That said, it is still possible for Johnson to become the face of NASCAR.  Gordon and Stewart have hung up their helmets.  Earnhardt Jr. will likely return for the 2017 Daytona 500, but his history of concussions could bring about a quicker end to his driving career than many people supposed.  Does that mean Johnson can fill the void?  After all, NASCAR will be eager to raise Johnson’s profile, especially if he breaks the record for premier series championships.

With seven titles to his name, Johnson has proven that he can match Petty on the track.  As he enters the final stages of his career, maybe Johnson will become the face of NASCAR and match Petty off of the track, too.