The mystery of Carl Edwards' wreck
24 May 2011
It's the curious case of the NASCAR wreck that shouldn't have happened.
Edwards had just completed 100 flawless laps of Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the #99 car still in a pristine state. But then he decided to do an impromptu celebratory slide through the in-field grass area, and by the time he came to a stop the front of the car was as badly mangled as if he'd gone into the speedway wall head-on at high speed.
Edwards climbed out, mimed a big "what the heck?" shrug for the crowd, and then got on with performing his trademark backflip off the car's driver-side door. Happily, that was back to a perfect execution.
"Nothing could ruin my night," Edwards beamed. "If I had flipped over and broke both my arms, I'd still be sitting here smiling!"
Speaking afterwards in victory lane, Edwards was keeping it light but sounded rather annoyed that the organisers had been careless enough to allow an infield drainage pipe to be in such a potentially dangerous area. "I had no idea that drain was there," he said. "I was trying to do a nice, full slide there and I hit a drainage pipe. I guess if you're going to tear it up, that's the time to tear it up."
So it was a drainage pipe?
Well ... no. NASCAR officials inspected the area, and there was no drain there. Later, car owner Jack Roush tried again:
"Unfortunately he hit a manhole cover," he said, incredulous that such track negligence had cost him a perfectly decent race car and caused tens of thousands of dollars (at least) in repair bills. "Yes, he hit a manhole cover. Who would guess they'd put a manhole cover in the middle [of the grass] like that?"
So it was a manhole cover?
Well ... still no. Track spokesman Scott Cooper stated emphatically that there were no obstacles of any kind in the area where Edwards had torn up the front of his car. No drain pipe, no manhole cover.
"I guess NASCAR's mad, because they think we're hiding something with that car," Edwards said. "I guess they're over there looking to see if I intentionally tore up my car, which I did not. I was trying to do a nice, full slide."
Sure enough, just as Edwards had prophesied, within minutes there were conspiracy rumours flying around the Internet that there had been something illegal with the car that had needed to be destroyed with an 'unfortunate' post-race incident before pit lane inspection brought disqualification.
Cars get skimmed across the in-field grass week-in, week-out without destroying the front of the car and the engine, they point out. How could Edwards manage such a wreck if it wasn't planned and intended? What else except some illegal set-up could explain the untouchable form of the #99 for the entire event, they asked - and especially the very suspicious way that Edwards had managed to dive into the lead just before the end of each segment, to pick up all the bonus prizes as well as the $1 million headline prize for the victory?
Edwards, for his part, seemed charmingly unaware that there even were end-of-stage prizes involved: when told after the race that he'd won $1.2m rather than $1m he simply assumed that the headline prize had been bumped up without his noticing. This is a man who doesn't notice prizes of the odd $200,000 popping up here and there, it's simply part of his world.
Of course the conspiracy theorists would point out that in that case, the repair bills for the wrecked #99 would hardly be a big deal, either.
Roush was affronted by the suggestion that the car had been wrecked to hide illegalities: not by the idea that his Roush Fenway team might be cheating, mind you, more that anyone could ever think that he would ever contemplate wasting a race-winning car like that. "These celebrations after race wins have become more and more outrageous," he grumbled.
"That's pretty dumb," Edwards agreed, at the very suggestion. "I really would have liked to have run that car next week. Bob [Osborne, Edwards' crew chief] says we've got as good a car as that one back at the shop. But it's not the car as much as it is the things they did to set it up," he said. "... And all that secret stuff down there in the grass.
"I'm kidding!" he added quickly, flashing a smile as bright as a NASCAR stockcar highbeam. "That's a joke! Make sure you tell everybody that's a joke!"
Of course it is ... In fact, the truth is almost certainly one of those unlikely but obvious and rather underwhelming things: the ride height of the front of the car and in particular the front splitter (the aerodynamic element as important to a NASCAR vehicle as the front wing is to an F1 car) was set so low for Charlotte that it simply dug into the ground when Edwards slid over an innocuous bump in the infield. Instead of simply shattering the splitter, the force of the impact was driven up through the front of the car and into the engine mounting, with catastrophic results.
After the wreck took care of that "secret stuff," and Edwards had done his backflip, he followed it up with another characteristic part of his celebrations: climbing up into the spectator area behind the catch fences to glad hand fans and share his moment of triumph.
"Carl is a rock star," Roush said. "He's the first one to crawl up into the stands. Some of the drivers wouldn't go up in the stands like that after a race, and for good reason. But Carl, he's well thought of and he's out there doing things that other people wish they had thought of first.
"And he drives the hell out of our race cars," he added, which was surely the most important thing as far as the team owner was concerned.
It's strange, then, that Jack Roush still hasn't made sure Edwards' future with the team is nice and secure. Edwards' contract with the team is up at the end of the 2011 season, and while the teams' other drivers have had their contracts finalised, Edwards is conspicuously the exception.
"It's going on behind closed doors," Roush said of the contract discussions. "It's not something that we're going to debate or discuss in the public. It's not a media issue, it's a private business issue that's ongoing."
The longer the season goes on, the stronger Carl Edwards' hand seems to get in the negotiations: he's got a big lead in the Sprint Cup championship as it nears the halfway point of the regular season; he's just delivered the All-Star title to the team; and he's also won three Nationwide races for the team. Add to that his popularity with fans - which translates into sponsor appeal as well - and Edwards is surely the biggest driver 'catch' on the market. His name seems to come up in media speculation every time a seat opens up with any of the big NASCAR teams.
That suggests that the stumbling point might be Edwards' salary demands, and Roush hinted that this might indeed be the case: "With some accuracy, I say I really don't do the money, I try to stay out of the money part of it. But I will have to pay attention to this deal as it gets closer."
It's the tension that you'll see across every type of motor sport around the world: drivers who think that the success of the team is down to them, and teams who feel that the driver would be nothing without the right hardware that they deliver to him.
Roush Fenway have some cause to believe that Edwards should be just a little more grateful and appreciative of what he gets from them. As well as Edwards, the team's Sprint Cup line-up also boasts Matt Kenseth (one of only three drivers to win two races so far in 2011) and David Ragan (who won the Sprint Showdown at the weekend to make it a Roush Fenway clean-sweep of all the weekend's prize-winning races and segments.) In the Nationwide series, the team just put young Ricky Stenhouse Jr. into victory road for the first time in his career, and the line-up also usually includes the currently-sidelined Trevor Bayne.
So would Edwards be as successful in another team? Probably not. But would Roush Fenway be the same force in NASCAR without their "rock star" leader? Again, probably not. No one wants to see the partnership founder over money, but no one can assume a deal will be done, either.
"Those talks are going on behind closed doors and we'll hopefully get something done. But right now we're running well and that is fun," said Edwards. "All I'll say about that is we're running really well right now and it's because of Jack Roush, Ford, all these people's hard work."
"I think Carl said it best," agreed Roush. "We're trying to maintain the focus on keeping our season together. We want to put ourselves in the best situation we can to make a championship run, to be in the top 10 [so that they make it into the Chase]."
When Roush signed Edwards in 2008, he memorably said that he "wouldn't break the bank" the next time around. The state of the economy is also biting NASCAR teams and sponsors, further restricting his freedom of movement to offer Edwards incentives to stay. But there are plenty of teams out there with deep pockets waiting and willing to pounce, such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Red Bull Racing and Penske Racing.
While Edwards has considerable personal popularity with fans and extending outside the sport as well, it's nothing compared to the fevered devotion that follows Dale Earnhardt Jr. When Dale needed to win the fan vote to make it into Saturday's All-Star event, the surprise wasn't that he won, but that the entire telephone network of the mainland United States didn't go into meltdown in the process.
"Jr. Nation" is a phenomenon, but Earnhardt's situation shows that fan popularity and sponsor appeal isn't the be-all and end-all of things when it comes to a NASCAR career. His racing form has never really fulfilled his promise, and the slightly underwhelming form has led to an absence of wins since his much-heralded switch to Hendrick Motorsports. There were even some who thought that Rick Hendrick might think there were better deals to be done elsewhere, and simply walk away from Earnhardt when the current deal between team and driver ends in 2012 - despite the fact that Earnhardt has risen to fourth place in the Spring Cup championship through consistency.
But Hendrick squashed any such speculation at the weekend, stating unequivocally that "We know we want to be together and we just want to get this over with." He said that most of the major negotiating points were settled and that the deal would be for a three- to five-year extension. "It shows I'm committed to him and he's committed to us."
"I'm excited to be where I am," Earnhardt confirmed. "It's an amazing organization. There are some great, great people there. I've learned a lot being around there. It's made me a better person ... If I get an opportunity to stick around, I'm excited about that."
Compared to the cagey dance being played out between Edwards and Roush over a contract much closer to expiry, the Hendrick-Eardhardt Jr. arrangement is a model of calm.