Back in May, the fact that championship leader Carl Edwards had not yet announced a new contract beyond the end of this season was a matter of passing interest
and the occasional comment
. But realistically, no one thought there were any real doubts that Edwards would re-sign with Roush Fenway Racing sooner or later.
Even when it continued to drag on with no news, and gossip grew about Joe Gibbs Racing aggressively pursuing Edwards with offers, it still seemed that it was just the usual contract negotiations at work, playing one hand off another, and that Edwards was just doing his best to get the best deal he could out of team owner Jack Roush.
Then we hit July, and all those experts who had been confidently predicting that Edwards was staying put in the #99 started to wobble; and by the end, the odds had shifted so far in the JGR direction that as NASCAR headed into Indianapolis last weekend many were suggesting that the only reason there had been no word was because Edwards had indeed decided to leave and wanted to delay announcing it to minimise the damage it would do to his Cup campaign.
Besieged by questions about his status, Edwards needed a new line at pre-race press conferences at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and boldly announced to the assembled media: "I have signed a contract," only to then immediately deflate the reporters by adding, "That's the contract I signed in 2008 to race for Jack in '09, '10 and '11 and try to win the championship, so that is my mission. That's the only contract that I have signed right now and that's the one that I'm going to honour, so that's what I'm doing."
The big unknown right now is whether the lack of an announcement is because of the genuine lack of a decision - or down to not wanting to derail his season. After all, 2011 is proving to be the best chance that the 31-year-old former Nationwide champion has yet had of clinching his first Cup title.
"Let's say he's going somewhere else: they're done," said Jeff Gordon about Edwards' title hopes in 2011. "I just don't see them winning the championship knowing that they're leaving. I might be wrong. But if he stays, it might have just been a blip and then get back on track."
That feeling is backed up by Kurt Busch, who drove for Roush Fenway in 2005 and who announced mid-season what he was leaving to go to Penske. He was stunned by the backlash he got from the team owner as a result.
"The experience I went through was hell," Busch confirmed. "I went in there like a man to tell Jack that I was leaving, and to see how it all turned out was very surprising to me ... I would definitely tread lightly."
The potential animosity of the situation is ramped up because of the engine marques that the two teams represent: Roush Fenway is the standard bearer for Ford, while Joe Gibbs Racing is the poster boy for Toyota. Both engine companies are aware of the potential PR value of signing Carl Edwards at this stage, with Toyota already believed to have been involved in upping the money offer to Edwards in recent weeks.