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.
Reports suggest that Ford have belatedly entered this negotiation as well, adding a signing fee and topping up Roush Fenway's salary offer to match JGR's purported $8m a year deal - plus prize money and not including any separate sponsorship deals. It's believed to be the first time in their history that Ford have stepped in to negotiate directly with a driver. If it happens, it would make Edwards Ford's "representative" on a personal services contract, not unlike the deals Chevrolet have with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and which would finally cement Edwards' position right at the top of the NASCAR food chain.
But is Ford's intervention too late in the day to save Edwards' seat in the #99 with Roush Fenway? And maybe it's not all about dollars and cents in any case. "I don't think it's about the money," suggested Lee White, president of Toyota Racing Development. "There's something else there."
If Edwards genuinely hasn't yet made a decision, there are plenty of people who feel that he should and that he owes it to others to make one sooner rather than later.
"Eventually, he's gonna have to make a decision and it'll be best for everybody so, one, we can plan for sponsorships and drivers and teams and people," said team mate Greg Biffle. "There are a lot of people's jobs on the line - if we're gonna be three teams or four teams - so the sooner the better."
In fact, Biffle's tone at Indianapolis notably tipped toward the exasperated over the whole Carl Edwards line of questioning - with perhaps an implication that he expected Edwards to depart. "It's obvious that it's coming to a head," he said. "At some point he's gonna have to say that 'I'm not coming back.' He's not gonna be able to wait until [season finale] Homestead, we all know that, so Carl is a big boy, he's a man and he has to make his own decisions."
That wearing of patience at Roush Fenway was notably in contrast to suddenly warm relations between Edwards and his potential future JGR team mates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Carl and Kyle have had a combative relationship in the past, but recently seem to have kissed and made up in just the way that good prospective team mates would.
"If Carl came over to Gibbs, certainly it would be beneficial," Kyle Busch said, "because he's really good at what he does, he's got great communication, he's got good feedback, and he's been one of the top three or four guys in the sport every year he's been around ... I feel like Carl would certainly mesh well and fit in and we could certainly have better results if we could make it a four-car team."
"I think it would be good for our team," Denny Hamlin agreed. "Having a guy that has already contended for championships and wins on a weekly basis can't be a bad thing."
The one JGR driver notably less enthusiastic about jumping on the Edwards bandwagon is young Joey Logano - since it's his seat in the #20 Home Depot car that Edwards would be taking, the longtime sponsor desperate to get on even terms with arch business rivals Lowes' Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR. The likelihood is that even if Edwards moves to JGR, Logano will stay on - albeit bumped to a new fourth car team, lacking the financial backing of Home Depot and the proven success of pit crew chief Greg Zipadelli.
"I wouldn't want to see Joey go anywhere," confirmed Kyle. "I would hope that we could work it to where Carl is our fourth guy."
The uncertainty about Edwards' future is having the same 'logjam' effect in driver signings and team plans for 2012 that has often been seen in previous years in F1 when key drivers have been 'in play' and the market seizes until their decision is revealed. Having already lost the Crown Royal sponsorship on Matt Kenseth's #17 car, Roush Fenway also has to make a decision about the future of the #6 team and its driver David Ragan, who has come into a hot streak of two poles and a win in July at just the right time. Will Ragan be retained if the team can't find a new sponsor for Kenseth and needs to shed one of its four cars? If Edwards stays, Ragan might be out; but if Edwards leaves then the team can't afford to lose Ragan as well, especially if he now makes it into the Chase on a wildcard after his Daytona win.
It's long been thought that Jack Roush - who will hate being hustled by a driver who he doubtless feels should be more appreciative of what he owes the team in getting Edwards where he is today, and who has a particular all-American personal hatred of Toyota's motor industry ascendancy - has long has Clint Bowyer in mind as a 'Plan B' should Edwards leave. But after having delayed his own contract renewal plans for months now, signs are that Bowyer is getting close to a deal extending his contract at Richard Childress Racing after more sponsorship money has been found with 5-Hour Energy, and that would leave Roush without a fall-back position: going instead with a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Trevor Bayne (both of whom are currently Roush Fenway development program drivers) would be Plan C but more difficult to find sponsorship money, as the lack of sponsor decals on Bayne's Nationwide car early in the season attests despite the youngster's Daytona 500 triumph in February.
The whole situation is boiling up into a genuine NASCAR local crisis, "kind of like whether we're gonna approve the debt ceiling or not," as Greg Biffle put it, making a comparison to the US national dept-pocalypse in Congress at the weekend.
"It's tough, but one thing I always did is when I knew what I was doing, then I said, 'This is what I'm gonna do,'" continued Biffle. "You can't have a deal done or plan to have a deal done and not let everybody know, so that it's fair for everyone to go make a plan on what's next."
And notably, for the first time this weekend Carl Edwards himself was no longer saying that there was no decision at all yet. "I'd rather not say," he said instead. "I'm not purposely withholding anything, other than to just be able to get the business side of everything done. When I'm able to talk about next season, if it's appropriate, I will talk about it, and I'll tell you guys."
Edwards' refusal to conduct contract negotiations in the eye of the media - and the fact that he's personally handling the discussions rather than letting an agent do it - is surely honourable, but it has also leaves the media and ultimately the fans frustrated about the situation in the meantime.
"We've all kind of parsed - or the media has parsed - every statement that Carl has made, in part because he's given very few of them," said Steve Newmark, the president of Roush Fenway Racing. "We understood that, and we sat down with him from the beginning, and he said, 'I don't want this to be public, and I'm going to maintain a very uniform approach to say that I'm not going to discuss it.' ... We have our discussions with him, and those are the discussions that matter to me."
Newmark said that he, Jack Roush and the team still had every hope and expectation of managing to re-sign Edwards. "I can't speak to Carl's thought process, although we've had a lot of good conversations," he said. "I can only tell you that my view and Jack's view is that Roush Fenway is the right place for him, not only this year but into the future. Ultimately, he's going to make the decision on what he thinks is the best for him.
"The goal, same as it was a few months ago, is to remain status quo and have the same four Cup drivers that we have now," he added. "Potentially having four positioned to be in the Chase. And then you look at how well Trevor and Ricky are running in Nationwide, it's been an ideal season for us on the track."
Estimates on when there might be news about a decision from Edwards range from "this week" through to "next month". Experts reading the tea leaves are trying to agree whether the longer the lack of news goes on points in the direction of Roush Fenway or Joe Gibbs Racing. One theory is that if the decision is to re-sign with Ford then the big announcement will be made at Michigan International Speedway (in Ford country) on August 21; if it's a move to Toyota then that's likely to be unveiled at Atlanta Motor Speedway (Home Depot's headquarters) on September 4.
Meanwhile, those in the know suggest that they're not surprised with how the negotiations have gone on, become drawn out and gone down to the wire.
"I'm not surprised," said Sunday's runner-up at Indianapolis, Jeff Gordon. "I spoke to Carl years ago when he stayed with Roush. We talked to him, as he talked to every team. I saw his negotiating tactics at that time. It's not surprising to me."