NASCAR: No Excuses For Carl Edwards in 2016

Carl Edwards has high hopes for 2016.

Carl Edwards has high hopes for 2016.

At the onset of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Carl Edwards made a dramatic career move after ten full seasons with Roush Fenway Racing to join Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) as driver of #19 Toyota Camry in an expanded four car team stable.

Even more striking was Edwards’ brash prediction at the time of the change, as he stepped out (or up, depending on your viewpoint) and made a proclamation that caught everyone’s attention, declaring “I plan on winning ten races and the championship.”

Perhaps Edwards was tempted by the inaugural success that his former Roush teammate Matt Kenseth achieved in 2013 by transferring to JGR, going on to win seven races and finish second in the Sprint Cup Championship in his debut.

Or perhaps Edwards was eager to emulate the domination that Kevin Harvick achieved during 2014 in his initial year with Stewart-Haas Racing by winning the Sprint Cup Championship.

Things don’t always play out as planned, however. In 2015 at JGR, Edwards had a solid season with 2 wins, 7 top 5’s, and 15 top 10’s. Yet, JGR teammate Kyle Busch went on to win the Sprint Cup Championship. Moreover, comparing 2015 with his last season at Roush, Edwards’ 2014 results were virtually identical with 2 wins, 7 top 5’s, and 14 top 10’s.

Edwards has shown that he can “walk the talk” based on past performance. From a career standpoint, he already has an XFINITY Series Championship, and he is probably one of the best wheelmen who has not yet won a Sprint Cup Championship.

Edwards has never bean an average driver, but he and Toyota expected more from 2015. Perhaps with the lower downforce pack for 2016 we'll see 'Cousin Carl' in a better place.

Edwards has never bean an average driver, but he and Toyota expected more from 2015. Perhaps with the lower downforce pack for 2016 we’ll see ‘Cousin Carl’ in a better place.

Edwards has finished second twice in the Championship battle during his eleven year career. In 2008, he fell just short to six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, perhaps letting the pressure get to him in the Chase, given Edwards lost the points lead near the end of the season despite collecting nine race victories. In 2011, he was back in the championship mix through the season finale at Homestead-Miami, where he lost in a tiebreaker to three-time champion Tony Stewart.

So, by Carl Edwards’ noble expectations, 2015 might be considered a lackluster debut with JGR. As a result, JGR shuffled two of their Sprint Cup team crew chiefs with Dave Rogers moving from Denny Hamlin’s #11 Toyota to the #19 Toyota of Carl Edwards, and Mike Wheeler becoming Hamlin’s crew chief, having spent a year as crew chief of JGR’s #20 XFINITY Series ride.

No surprise, as neither Denny Hamlin nor Carl Edwards attained the 2015 Championship title that they covet, given their taste of having finishing second in the Chase in previous years. For JGR to make these leadership changes, both Edwards and Hamlin must be convinced that these new crew chief relationships will give them a higher likelihood of securing the title in 2016. 

Something must not have clicked with Edwards’ former crew chief Darian Grubb, as he is the odd man out left to “explore other opportunities”. No doubt the 2015 season did not start the way Edwards and Grubb envisioned, as the #19 team only recorded one top-10 finish through the first eleven races; as well, for a majority of the regular season, Edwards’ team sat outside of the top 15 in the Championship standings.

What is most curious is that “Cousin Carl” has been fairly mum on the crew chief change, deferring to the deep bench strength that JGR possesses in both their Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series programs, along with trusting that Joe Gibbs is best positioned to undertake the proper leadership actions.

But “chemistry” is the most popular word used to describe the relationship between driver and crew chief when performance is there. As Jimmie Johnson has supremely stated, chemistry is the intersection where the magic happens and bonding occurs between driver and crew chief. When there is perceived room for improvement in team chemistry, crew chief changes will occur.

And make no mistake, any Sprint Cup championship caliber driver will have substantial input into any crew chief decision. So, “Cousin Carl” surely conferred and concurred with the crew chief swap. Edwards is a charming pitchman for his sponsors and always strives to be likeable. Fans savor Edwards’ victory celebrations that include his signature backflip and plunges into the grandstands to mingle with fans.

So, regardless of his low profile behavior in the crew chief situation, Edwards surely interviewed Rogers prior to the change to assess what he could bring to the #19 program and make sure they were on the same page.

From Edwards’ perspective, he must be convinced that this change in team leadership will spur the #19 team to great things in 2016.

As a confidence boost, NASCAR heads into 2016 with new low downforce aero rules, and Edwards has been an enthusiastic proponent of this rules package. In 2015, Edwards won the Southern 500 at Darlington, where the new package was being tested. He even lobbied to have the low downforce package adopted early for the 2015 Chase playoff, but NASCAR did not wish to change its rules mid-season.

Edwards’ patience is wearing thin, having previously remarked that he is eleven years into his career having yet to win the Sprint Cup title. At JGR, Edwards believes he is learning how to take advantage of the vast JGR resources. Now, if he can hit on the new downforce rules and forge a tight bond with his new crew chief, Edwards just might finally pocket that Sprint Cup title in 2016.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

Harvick Will Be The Dominant Driver At Phoenix

Gordon's teammates will be playing chess at Phoenix in order to limit the competition for Gordon at Homestead.

Gordon’s teammates will be playing chess at Phoenix in order to limit the competition for Gordon at Homestead.

With this weekend’s NASCAR race at Phoenix looming four drivers will be out of the game and four will be in, Count on Kevin Harvick to be one of the drivers who advance to Homestead for the finale’.

Harvick has had one of those seasons that had the usual ebb and flow we’ve come to expect from top drivers and teams. Periods of excellence that move to mediocre results and then come back with a vengeance aren’t uncommon for those who are in the elite club. The trick is when to peak.

Kevin Harvick seems to be more than at home in Phoenix having won 5 consecutive races at the desert track as well as 8 wins overall. He’s the favorite to win again ensuring his Homestead spot for the chance at his second Cup championship.

There are no more chances, this race is it. Jeff Gordon is ready to go, having won Darlington. The top four drivers in points are: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr, who seems to many to be an outlier.

One thing is certain the games will be in play at Phoenix with virtually all 7eligible drivers getting no help from their teammates and Hendrick rallying it’s team to block as many strong contenders as it can from being a threat to Jeff Gordon’s chances at Homestead.

Edwards should be the favorite to transfer to the big show after Phoenix.

Edwards should be the favorite to transfer to the big show after Phoenix.

We were witness to that type of chess play when Jimmie Johnson so skillfully and stealthily ran down a dominant Brad Keselowski to take away a guaranteed spot for the Penske driver as well as further keep Joey Logano at bay.

That could actually play into Martin Truex, Jr’s hands, though the cards aren’t in his favor as his record at Phoenix are far from stellar and Furniture Row is a one car team.

When it’s all said and done, the money seems to point to Gordon, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards making the big show in South Florida.

Edwards has two wins at Phoenix and they are within the last few years rather than a decade old, so count him as a real threat to knock Truex out of the picture.

My picks going into Homestead: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards. Not a stretch, right?

My real hope is that Gordon goes out as a Champion and we can close the books on these cars with too much down force.

2016 is pivotal point for not only NASCAR but IndyCar and Formula One as well. It can’t come too soon for me.

Harvick: The Right Man To Win The Championship

Kevin Harvick is congratulated by his team owner, Tony Stewart, after Harvick won his first Sprint Cup title and the second for Stewart Haas Racing.

Kevin Harvick is congratulated by his team owner, Tony Stewart, after Harvick won his first Sprint Cup title and the second for Stewart Haas Racing.

Many competitors have already said that Kevin Harvick deserved the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship – and many fans agree.

During the course of the season he emerged as one of the most competitive drivers in NASCAR. He put up the kind of numbers it takes to win a title.

For example, he led 2,137 laps, more than any other driver. He’s only the third competitor to lead more than 2,000 laps in a given season.

Interestingly, Jimmie Johnson lead 2,238 laps in 2009 and Jeff Gordon 2,320 laps in 2001 – and both won a championship.

Just prior to the start of the Chase, Harvick started leading laps with ease. He led the most laps in four of the first five “playoff” races, but won only once, at Charlotte.

Prior to 2014, Harvick finished among the top-five in the championship standings six times. He finished third three times, in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

Despite his propensity for leading laps during the Chase, Harvick found himself in a quandary. He was eighth in points after Texas and had to find some way to move into the final four after Phoenix, the next, and last, race before the championship tilt at Homestead.

Harvick came through marvelously. He won at Phoenix – where he led the most laps, again – and cracked the top four, barely.

At Phoenix Harvick might have been at his best. Certainly his championship rivals – Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman – were not about to do anything than their best.

With Harvick in the lead much of the time, the championship contenders locked themselves into the top five, lap after lap.

It was pure, hard racing – the kind of which NASCAR fans so heartily approved.

Ford EcoBoost 400

Harvick came into the last race of the year, at Homestead, fourth in points. His second win in the Chase put him over the top.

Circumstances changed near the end of the race. Harvick found himself free of most of his challengers. Only Newman persisted.

Harvick led the last eight laps (of 54 for the race) and won his second consecutive race in the Chase. It assured him of his first Sprint Cup championship.

Harvick finished with five victories – tied for second-most on the season – 24 top-fives and 20 finishes among the top 10.

Harvick won career-high eight poles in 2014 and set qualifying records six times.

Harvick won the second Sprint Cup title for Stewart Haas Racing since its inception in 2009. The team won the championship with co-owner Tony Stewart in 2011.

But I daresay this year’s title has been far more satisfying. SHR has endured a difficult, controversial year. As you know, a grand jury would not indict Stewart after he struck and killed a driver in a Sprint Cup race in New York in August.

Kurt Busch faces allegations he assaulted his girlfriend in Dover in September. Investigation is ongoing.

It was Harvick’s championship that brought a new, positive focus to SHR and helped establish it as a quality team – despite its difficulties.

This might be Harvick’s first Sprint Cup title but he is no stranger to championships. He has eight driving titles in 33 years of racing.

He joins Bobby Labonte and Brad Keselowski as the only three drivers to have won Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series championships.

Harvick admitted that to win the title wasn’t easy. Prior to the Homestead race, he felt the pressure.

“The week ate me up,” Harvick said. “If it wasn’t for Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, I would have been in bad trouble. Those guys really helped me get through the week.

“I was a little anxious both days of practice, overdriving the car and not doing things I needed to do. After every practice, Jimmie was in there, and in our team debriefs Tony was constantly telling me just to go race and that it’s just another race.

“It was. It all worked out. I’m just really proud of everybody.”

Harvick did not join SHR until the start of this season. He spent 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing, where he compiled a record of 23 wins, 100 top-five finishes and 209 among the top 10.

But changes were coming at RCR, including the emergence of Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon. So Harvick moved on.

And who could have predicted his first season at SHR would bring a championship?

“They gave us all the resources that we needed, and said, ‘Whatever you guys think you need, you go get,’ ” Harvick said. “We never talked about money, we never talked about any anything financial. It was just go get what you need.

“We built all brand new race cars, trucks, trailers with all new people. This format really helped us build through the year. We had really fast cars but it helped us build as a team.”

Harvick also acknowledged that the new Chase format was a boon and a success for him. – which is obvious.

“I think this Chase is about the best thing that has happened to this sport over the last decade,” he said. “This is probably going to shorten the drivers careers because it’s been so stressful.

“But I want to thank every single fan for sticking with this sport, and to the industry for working to get it right.”

 

 

 

 

 

JUNIOR JOHNSON: With Elliott On Board Came The Greatest Showdown In NASCAR History

In 1992, Bill Elliott drove for Junior Johnson and put together a solid performance that made him a championship contender virtually all season long.

When Junior Johnson hired Bill Elliott as one of his drivers in 1992 he felt very confident he had found the man who could bring him another championship.

Sure enough, Elliott was the hottest driver early in the season. He won four consecutive races – all in March of that year.

But that effort did not bring him and Junior Johnson & Associates the points lead. That belonged to Davey Allison, the Robert Yates Racing driver who won the Daytona 500 and finished among the top five in the next five events.

Johnson knew consistency was the key. That was what NASCAR’s point system rewarded.

Despite his hot start to the season, Elliott was not always consistent.

But it evolved that toward the end of the season, he had clawed his way into first place in the standings, ahead of Allison and a fading Alan Kulwicki – who was having his best career season.

It reached the point that with two races to go, all Elliott had to do was keep it all together and race for points.

It seemed a simple enough task.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout most of the season.

 

Again, I’ll mention that in 1992, Bill won four races in a row during March and despite that, he still was not the points leader.

Davey Allison, who had a 98-point lead over Bill after Bill was involved in a wreck at Daytona, put together five top-five finishes in five races.

As a result, even after the victories, Bill could take away only 50 points from Davey’s lead.

The only reason I bring this up again is to emphasize the criticism the NASCAR point system received at that time.

The system rewarded consistency more than anything else. OK, fine, but shouldn’t victories count for more?

In 1984 Darrell Waltrip – driving for me – won seven races yet finished fifth in the point standings behind first-place Terry Labonte, who won just twice.

And in 1985, Darrell won three times and won the championship. Bill won 11 races and was an also-ran.

Davey Allison won the Daytona 500 in ’92 to put him atop the point standings. He remained among the leaders all season and was the favorite to win the title.

Darrell was delighted that he won the title, of course – it would be his last – but even he couldn’t understand how he did it.

“There’s not enough incentive to win,” Darrell said. “Bill should have been the Winston Cup champion in 1985.”

I knew that, the system being what it was, Junior Johnson & Associates could not afford a series of mediocre to bad finishes if it was to win the championship with Bill.

Heck, that was obvious after the early part of the ’92 season. Bill finished 27th at Daytona – where Davey won – and even after four straight wins, Bill still couldn’t overtake Davey in points.

It was obvious that Bill and my team could not make mistakes. Mistakes ruin consistency – and it was obvious consistency would win the title.

And if we could not be consistent, we had to hope that the teams we were fighting for the title were less consistent than we were.

I’ll give you a perfect example of that. In only the sixth race of the year, at Bristol, Bill had all kinds of problems.

He spun on the 31st lap after an incident with Ted Musgrave. He spent a lot of time in the pits while the guys made repairs and finished 20th.

But get this: Davey took a hard shot into the wall and broke an oil fitting. His car was ruined and he retired from the race in 29th place.

As a result, as rough a day as Bill had, he GAINED points. He was 48 behind Davey going into the race and just 29 behind, and in second place, afterward.

The championship strategy was obvious: Be consistent. If you can’t, be better than the other guy. Wins are great, but they don’t guarantee anything.

Junior Johnson & Associates was not the model of consistency. At the 10th race of the year, Charlotte, Bill had all kinds of problems and wound up in 14th place, four laps off the pace. He fell to 111 points behind Davey.

Things got a bit better at the next race, at Sonoma, where Bill finished fifth, well ahead of Davey, who was 28th.

That race was held on June 7, 1992 and that morning we got the word that NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. had passed away at his Ormond Beach, Fla., home.

My thoughts were not unlike virtually everyone else’s: Without him, we wouldn’t be here. It was that simple.

The season went reasonably well for Bill afterward. Maybe that is an understatement. By the 23rd race of the year, at Dover, Bill finished second to Ricky Rudd. Bill had already moved to first in points and after Dover he built up a 154-point lead over Davey.

No, Bill hadn’t won a race in a long time but his regained consistency was, obviously, proving very beneficial.

I felt very confident we were in line to win the title.

My confidence was re-enforced when Alan Kulwicki, who was having a great season, wrecked at Dover and fell well behind Bill and Davey in points – more than 200 points.

“I guess this finishes it for us,” Alan said.

Although he didn’t know it at the time – and I didn’t either – he was wrong.

Bill was in great shape after Rockingham, the 27th race of the year. He finished fifth – his first top-five in a month – and his point lead was 70 over Davey, who finished 10th, and 80 over Alan, who finished 12th.

There were two races to go. We were in comfortable shape.

I mean, if we could run like we did at Rockingham over the last two races, we would be in excellent shape.

We didn’t have to race hard. All we had to do was gain points.

I didn’t know it at the time but that was going to be difficult to do.

And I also didn’t know this: The season would end with perhaps the greatest championship showdown in NASCAR’s history.

JUNIOR JOHNSON: Drive For Another Championship In 1992

Junior Johnson had to make some wholesale changes for the 1992 season and one was to acquire Bill Elliott as one of his drivers. Junior felt strongly Elliott could win a championship.

Junior Johnson fully anticipated a stellar 1992 season. His driver lineup had changed. Sterling Marlin remained and was joined by Bill Elliott.

Elliott was an established superstar who had won the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Elliott was hugely popular.

Johnson thought he had found his man. In fact, so much so that he set his eyes on yet another championship. He felt Elliott was just the guy to help him achieve it.

Remarkably, Elliott won four of the season’s first five races but was NOT No. 1 in the point standings, which we designed to reward consistency.

Johnson knew immediately that while winning was nice, it had to be accompanied with high finishes in order to score maximum points.

That wasn’t going to be easy.

As time passed, that proved to be very, very true.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday for most of the season.

At the end of the 1991 season, I have to admit that I was at something of a crossroads.

Things just weren’t going as well and I had hoped. In ’91, my drivers didn’t fare all that well. Geoff Bodine won our only race and finished 14th in the point standings – granted, he was hampered by injury.

Sterling finished seventh in points and did not win a race.

In Junior’s Ford, Elliott started the 1992 season strongly. Although he stumbled at Daytona, the Georgia driver won the next four races in a row.

Geoff and Junior Johnson & Associates parted ways at the end of the ’91 and, honestly, it was for the best. Geoff did not like multi-car teams. He was convinced they couldn’t win.

To tell the truth after 1991 I was pretty close to reaching the same conclusion. But to make a wholesale change would be difficult. Sterling was still driving for me and I had commitments to sponsors.

Fortunately, I was able to sign a driver with impeccable credentials; one whom I strongly felt would make my team championship caliber.

I had followed Bill Elliott throughout his successful career. He came out of North Georgia and, at first, raced for his family’s team. Then he joined Harry Melling and in 1985 put together a remarkable season.

Bill won 11 superspeedway races that year. That hasn’t been done since.

And he should have won the championship, but he slipped up over the last part of the season and lost it to Darrell Waltrip, who was driving for me.

Got to admit that Darrell, a guy never at a lost for words, may have verbally rattled Bill a bit.

Bill went on to win the 1988 championship.

You know, I had tried to hire him long before 1991. But things never worked out. I kept my eye on him. After the 1991 season, I thought I had a chance. Bill won only one race (as he had in 1990) and finished a distant 12th in points.

I suspected he wasn’t too happy. He said he enjoyed his time with Melling but felt it was time to move on.

So, after some discussion, he agreed to become a part of Junior Johnson & Associates. He was very pleased.

I fully intended to run for the championship with Bill. He was the right guy to win championships.

Now, I didn’t have any problem with Dale Earnhardt, who seemed to beat up on everybody in the early ‘90s. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with his style.

But I knew he wasn’t going to continue to keep roughing people up and get away with it. I’d rather have a guy with finesse – and I was convinced Bill was that guy.

We got off to a great start. Bill qualified second for the Daytona 400 and Sterling won the pole. It was a Junior Johnson & Associates sweep.

But at the halfway point a wreck occurred among Bill, Sterling and Ernie Irvan while battling for the lead. You, Ernie seemed to have a way of being involved in numerous incidents.

That aside, the whole race was spoiled. We managed to patch up Bill’s Ford enough for him to get back on the track, but the best he could do was 27th.

I admit it wasn’t a good start towards a championship.

Then something happened that even I could not have imaged.

Bill won the next four races in a row – that’s right, in a row.

He won at Richmond when he beat a charging Alan Kulwicki by less that a foot.

He pulled away from the field to win at Rockingham.

Bill got great gas mileage and a timely late caution flag to win at Atlanta.

Bill won at Darlington virtually unchallenged.

He had won all the races in March and 80 percent of the races in 1992. But here’s something you are not going to believe:

He was NOT leading the point standings. It was hard for anyone, including me, to figure out why he wasn’t No. 1.

It was because of NASCAR’s point system. It was geared toward consistency. It rewarded drivers who piled up good finishes week after week and stayed out of trouble – avoiding DNFs.

So while Bill was winning, Davey Allison put together five consecutive top-five finishes in five races.

After Daytona, Allison had a 98-point lead over Bill, who was able to chop off only 50 points with his four wins.

A lot of folks felt NASCAR’s system should change to reward more points for victories. I was one of them.

But it was what it was and we knew what we had to do to win a championship.

I still felt 1992 was going to be our season.

It turned out to be one of the most dramatic, singular seasons in NASCAR’s history.

 

 

 

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