As the dust settles on Carl Edwards’ departure from the sport, questions swirl as to whether he’s a NASCAR Hall of Famer. His retirement, done in the peak of his career cuts short as much as a decade’s worth of potential starts, wins, even championships.
Does that mean it cuts off his chances at immortality?
That’s tough to predict, considering NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is still in its infancy. Established in 2010, the five-member-a-year induction rule means a sport that’s been around for nearly 70 years has an honor roll of just 40 as of late January 2017. It’s a small sample size to build around a simple question of where, exactly, the line is between a “good” career and one “great” enough to be enshrined forever?
We do know this much: Edwards’ zero championships on the Cup level won’t be a potential hurdle for induction. Mark Martin, who failed to win a title throughout a 30-year NASCAR career is part of the Class of 2017. He’s the first driver to make the cut without a championship although the court of popular opinion deems him the best driver to never win one.
Martin also fell short on two key events, also holes in Edwards’ resume, going winless in both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. In fact, a closer look at their careers shows the former Roush teammates have similar trajectories.
In nearly half as many starts as Martin, Edwards was on pace for about the same number of top 5s, top 10s, and plenty more wins. He also finished second in the championship twice, in 2008 and ’11 and third another time, losing the tiebreaker to Greg Biffle in ’05. Compare that to Martin’s five runner-up title performances, done in multiple eras and including with his second-place Chase finish to Jimmie Johnson in 2009.
Martin also owns 49 XFINITY wins, once a record in that series. But Edwards has comparable numbers there, too. He won 38 times, finished top three in the standings six straight years and owns a series title (2007). He did that double-dipping, running full Cup and XFINITY schedules which included several helicopter flights to and from race weekends to keep it all straight.
Some voters will take that as Edwards beating up on the little guy, a modern-day NASCAR problem of top drivers diving down into the minor leagues. But the sheer willpower and physical condition needed to drive 70 races in a full season, at the top of his game at both leagues should be considered. While Edwards was “beating up” the XFINITY guys he also was making NASCAR Cup Chases regularly, the only driver in history to earn second-place finishes in both point systems in the same year (2008). His 5,985 laps led in XFINITY fall just short of the 6,136 laps he led in Cup.
Moving on, it’s clear that Edwards left more wins on the table by retiring early, a stat we can’t prescribe to Martin or fellow Hall of Famers Terry Labonte and Dale Jarrett. So let’s look at their win percentages to gauge a fair comparison.
As you can see, Edwards beats them all. Does that compare to recently-retired Jeff Gordon’s11.6 percent? Absolutely not. But we’re asking whether Edwards is a Hall of Famer, not the greatest driver of his era. The stats we just showed indicate he makes a good case.
It’s true Edwards could have accomplished more. He never won a restrictor plate Cup race, fell short on all those title bids and earned just one top-5 finish apiece at Indy and Martinsville. But he did win the Southern 500 at Darlington, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (the sport’s longest race) and earned nine victories in a single year (2008).
That last one? Former champions Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth have never accomplished those numbers.
For Edwards, I think it boils down to how much voters are able to forgive his early retirement. He left the sport mere laps away from a championship, his team entering 2017 intact on the strength of three wins and a series-high six poles. He could have been a factor for several years to come, but if the Hall of Fame was based on pretend you or I would have our busts alongside Dale Earnhardt.
Edwards will have to rest on his laurels. My take? It’s probably enough. We’ll have to see if everyone else agrees.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)