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Edwards' contract and comments stir controversy

22 June 2011

Considering how successful Carl Edwards has been so far in 2011 - he's 20pts ahead in the Cup championship after 15 races - you'd think that a contract renewal with Roush Fenway Racing would be a done deal.

But instead, there's still no word about whether Edwards is going to re-sign with Jack Roush after all, long after his team mate Greg Biffle sorted out a three-year extension back in April. And the longer the uncertainty goes on, the more gossip goes around the NASCAR paddock about the possibility of Edwards' and Roush's negotiations having stalled and deadlocked.

Last weekend's "no smoke without fire" story was that Edwards had been in discussions with Joe Gibbs about a move there in 2012.

It would prove to be a logical development: if talks with Roush really have hit a roadblock, then Edwards would need to start talking to other teams simply as a contingency, and in today's NASCAR field there are few teams comparable with Roush Fenway. Indeed, Joe Gibbs Racing may be pretty much the only game in town as far as a championship-winning partnership prospect goes for Edwards.

But just as stories about Lewis Hamilton having a talk with Christian Horner in Montreal does not mean a deal for him to switch to Red Bull F1 is about to happen anytime soon, neither does any talk about meetings between Edwards and Gibbs - even if true - mean that anything substantive is in the works.

Gibbs would clearly be interested in having the 2011 champion-presumptive on the books for next season, and the rumours go that he's less than happy about Joey Logano's development in the #20. Logano was signed as the "next big thing" but has had a less than scintillating couple of years with the team, this weekend finishing in 18th place while his team mates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished first and third respectively.

Unsurprisingly, the problem with Edwards' Roush Fenway contract talks seems to be over money: Edwards was an expensive signing for the team when he moved there, and after the success he's given the team in the last two years he understandably thinks that he should get his due reward - whereas Roush has publicly said that he has no intention of breaking the bank again like that anytime soon, for anyone.

When it comes to funding any deal, Roush Fenway has had a battle to retain consistent sponsorship with the #99 while the JGR #20 comes complete with one of the most secure and enduring sponsor deals in NASCAR courtesy of Home Depot - who are desperate to topple business arch rivals Lowes from the top of the Cup championship after five straight years of victory with Jimmie Johnson.

The #20 also comes with one of the top crew chiefs in the business, two-time championship winning Greg Zipadelli. This may be both a plus- and a minus-point: Zipadelli has traditionally been seen as an inseparable package with the #20, but Edwards has always been very loyal and committed to his current crew chief Bob Osborne - although a couple of early season calls about whether to pit or stay out (the eternal fresh rubber versus track position debate) seemed to cause a little friction between them when Osborne's calls proved the wrong way to go. However, current paddock gossip suggests that Zipadelli may be contemplating a move to Tony Stewart's team after friction in recent months with Logano. Zipadelli won the Cup championship with Stewart in 2002 and 2005.

Despite all the paddock chatter about how Edwards has never entirely fitted in at Roush Fenway in the same way that firm friends Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth have, and that he considers himself something of the outsider with the team, it still seems more likely than not that when it comes down to it Carl will be staying put in the #99 next year rather than jumping in at JGR. Then again, everyone thought it was inconceivable that Dale Earnhardt Jr. could ever leave the team that bore his (and his father's) name - but he did when he moved to Hendrick Motorsport in 2008. (Dale Earnhardt, Inc. subsequently merged with Chip Ganassi's NASCAR operation in 2009 to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.)

But the current contract uncertainty has meant that other teams are also taking notice - in particular Red Bull, who had rumoured to be looking at a replacement for Brian Vickers who has not been at his best since his return to the team after medical leave in 2011 for a blood clotting and heart condition that sidelined him last season.

Prior to the rumours that they may be about to quit NASCAR altogether, Red Bull were said to be strongly wooing another driver who will be a free agent at the end of 2011, Juan Montoya - although it would have been a seismic shock to see Montoya leave the Ganassi fold, a relationship that goes back to the Colombian's Champ Car days in the 90s. Once the news about Red Bull broke, Montoya was said to be rushing to re-sign with Ganassi as soon as possible.

Red Bull's withdrawal is likely to have an impact on any decision that Kimi Raikkonen has on any future forays into NASCAR. The possibility of him taking a seat in the Cup team - or else a driver such as Mattias Ekstrom, a long-time Red Bull driver in DTM where he is a two-time champion as well as a three-time winner of the Race of Champions - had recently been discussed as a possibility.

But Edwards himself - usually the perfect Mr Corporate and the only driver who can get away with diving into a crowd of fans to celebrate a race victory without any concern that he might not be universally popularly welcomed - also raised eyebrows with his post-Michigan comments concerning NASCAR's plans for the next generation of racecar due in 2013.

"Downforce is such a big factor in these cars, and I am really hoping NASCAR will take the opportunity in 2013 to take downforce away so the fans can see the guys race race cars and not race downforce," Edwards said. "Let's say all of the cars are a tenth apart and you are behind two or three cars, your car is two-tenths of a second slower. You can't make [that sort of margin] up."

NASCAR has strongly directed drivers not to criticise the sport, the races or the organisation in public after evidence showed that fan views about the sport strongly aligned with comments made by their favourite drivers. Denny Hamlin recently revealed that he had been secretly fined $50,000 for criticising NASCAR on Twitter, while Ryan Newman revealed that he had also been secretly fined in April 2010 for critical comments he made about the style of racing at Talladega.

Instead, drivers are expected to 'codify' their criticism. Instead of saying anything negative about the car's need for clean air, most drivers will simply say "track position is so important" and how it is difficult to pass with the current NASCAR aero package because the cars are so similar.

"I'm not whining; Denny earned this win and those are the rules we are under," Edwards quickly added, praising Denny Hamlin's race-winning performance at Michigan. "Track position was huge, and I just wish it wasn't like that."

His Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth was more on the "official" line and said that Sunday's difficulties had been more to do with the tyres than the car specification. "It has been more difficult to pass lately [but] I honestly think that is the tyre more than anything else. It seems like the tyres we have been running this year lay down a lot of rubber, which is nice, but on that restart it was slime from bottom to top and you are up there sliding. That is how it feels to me."

Given the earlier smoke about contract negotiations, it's no wonder that some are looking at this post-race exchange as signs of proof of open flames at Roush Fenway, and that the cracks between driver and team are starting to show.


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