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.