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 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