This season, it’s championship or bust for Carl Edwards.
That NASCAR’s most natural pitchman has lofty expectations in plain view for 2015 isn’t much of a surprise. Optimism and external motivation are hallmarks of Edwards’ personality.
But it is interesting to hear the two-time Chase runner-up talk so candidly about his expectations in 2015 after an offseason of such significant change. Edwards, 35, will drive the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing this season after a decade of driving Fords for Roush Fenway Racing in the Sprint Cup Series.
It’s a big move, no doubt, but to Edwards, it’s one that had to happen. The theory is that a new environment, after years of stagnation, gives the driver an automatic boost.
“Matt Kenseth’s move, Kevin (Harvick)’s move, Joey (Logano)’s move — when I talked to (Roush Fenway Racing President) Steve Newman and Jack Roush about my decision, those guys were evidence that sometimes change on its own can spur performance,” Edwards says. “I’m hoping that it works that way for me.”
That trio’s success could mark a shift in thinking that’s emblematic of NASCAR’s decades-long push for on-track parity — a movement that has pushed every well-funded, competitive team within tight technical parameters and minimal setup diversity. No longer does a crew chief have to find the optimal way to communicate with a driver to maximize performance. The team leader just has to make sure that a team of engineers can appropriately mesh on-car data acquisition with driver feedback, and then he has to hope that the team’s overall approach isn’t lagging behind the competition. If that all goes well, then the driver’s heavy lifting gets a bit easier.
Edwards also sees NASCAR’s newest championship format — the revised Chase for the Sprint Cup featuring a regular season, three elimination rounds and a final best-finisher-take-all race — as another hurdle eliminated in the process of reaching the sport’s greenest pasture with a new team.
“I don’t have to perfectly mesh with everyone or figure out the race cars right away,” Edwards says. “All I have to do is get a win in the regular season and be at top form at race 36. I’m certain, that as a driver, I can do that.”
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The process Edwards speaks of is very similar to how Harvick won the 2014 title. Harvick won twice early in 2014 and ran relatively well for the entire season, but he hit rocky stretches in which mechanical issues, bad luck and pit crew problems knocked him from contention on a seemingly weekly basis. The wins, however, provided his team with the championship eligibility safety net. By race No. 27, the team was firing on all cylinders.
But Harvick also had the benefit of an open testing policy that’s been completely shelved in 2015, turning laps in his new No. 4 just weeks after his stint with Richard Childress Racing ended. Edwards’ only time on the track with his new JGR team will come on race weekends, NASCAR-scheduled test sessions and an occasional Goodyear tire test.
To make up the difference, Edwards is expecting that the opportunity to work again with Kenseth — they were teammates at RFR from 2004-12 — at JGR will shorten the learning curve. Their reunion may rekindle memories of a time when the two didn’t get along so well — including an awkward post-race incident at Martinsville Speedway in 2007 — but Edwards insists that the relationship has improved. “There were times when we didn’t get along, but that’s ancient history,” Edwards says. “He’s a guy I really look up to.”
Edwards will start the season with Darian Grubb as crew chief. There’s irony here as the duo once battled when Grubb led Tony Stewart’s team, winning the 2011 title that Edwards lost on a tiebreaker. Grubb is a strong engineer who will help a new team get off the ground. His chemistry with Edwards is unknown, but keep in mind that he’s got wins with three of the best in the business: Denny Hamlin, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.
Then, there’s owner Joe Gibbs, one of NASCAR’s best, who waited nearly a decade to expand from three teams to four. He wanted the perfect financial combination (in this case, ARRIS and Stanley Tools) paired with the right driver capable of contending immediately. Expectations for the new No. 19 will be high.
“To us, to me, that championship is it,” Edwards says. “Anything less and I won’t be satisfied.”
Needs some speed Roush Fenway’s No. 99 car ranked 18th in average green-flag speed, per NASCAR. Joe Gibbs Racing cars should supply Edwards with a jolt in the speed department.
Road course standout Edwards averaged a third-place finish last year at the road courses and scored his first career road course win at Sonoma.
Still a threat on the quad-ovals Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta proved comfortable for Edwards during a down 2014 season. The fast intermediates were his best oval track type per average finish (7.5) and saw him close adeptly, gaining 37 positions in the final tenth of races.
Positive regression forthcoming His 135 laps led in 2014 were his fewest in a season since becoming a full-time Cup Series driver in 2005. It’s doubtful he’ll perform that poorly again, especially in JGR equipment.
No. 19 Toyota Joe Gibbs Racing
Primary Sponsors: ARRIS, Stanley
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Darian Grubb
Year With Current Team: 1st
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 2nd (2008, ’11)
Hometown: Columbia, Mo.
Born: Aug. 15, 1979
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.