Ryan: The craziest twist in the Carl Edwards story, one year later

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Carl Edwards isn’t coming back.

But if he were, where would he go?

This is what has become the astounding part of Edwards’ saga, possibly more stunning than one year ago today when he walked into a conference room at Joe Gibbs Racing to explain why he was walking away from NASCAR.

Many expected he eventually would choose to return to the Cup Series, and he initially left many openings for climbing behind the wheel again (notably at Atlanta Motor Speedway last March).

But as the Columbia, Missouri, native’s comments in local media telegraphed last week, the siren call of staying on his 425-acre farm apparently outweighed racing stock cars.

And there hardly seems a path back to a top-flight ride in NASCAR’s premier series, which was transformed by a 2017 season that devalued the necessity of having a seasoned winner such as Edwards.

None of the top teams has a ride in imminent need of being filled, and any unexpected opening likely would be tabbed for someone much younger than Edwards, 38.

You could name a dozen instances last year – Ryan Blaney’s win at Pocono Raceway, Erik Jones’ anointment as successor to Matt Kenseth, Hendrick Motorsports’ selection of Alex Bowman and William Byron – in which that narrative seemed to have shifted, and it also could be attributed to many reasons – shrinking sponsor dollars, big-ticket driver salaries, engineering trumping experience.

But what if Edwards’ decision actually was the inflection point at which everything began to change?

What if a highly marketable and accomplished star leaving in the prime of his career marked the moment in which The Great Youth Movement of 2017-18 tacitly began?

What if we thought we were watching an ending … that actually was a beginning?

Subscribing to this notion requires connecting some dots with a healthy dose of nuance and a dash of sociology.

Edwards’ retirement didn’t directly trigger a cascading series of reactions that concluded with Byron and Bowman in Cup next year.

But it did plant some seeds and provide an accelerated test case of how a powerhouse team would handle being thrust into a changing of the guard at least a year ahead of schedule.

Aside from an early season blip in 2017, Joe Gibbs Racing hardly missed a beat without Edwards, and the team financially positioned itself well for the future with the byproduct of a major salary dump. Suarez is making a fraction of what Edwards did, a cost savings stretching well into the eight figures.

Though Jones was contractually obligated to join JGR in 2018, making the call for him to replace Kenseth probably became less fraught given the relative smoothness of the sudden transition to Suarez.

Surely, other teams noticed as well. Groupthink is a weekly pursuit in a Cup garage built around mimicry, but its tentacles also can extend to teams’ front offices, where prospects have soured for accomplished veterans.

Imagine if Edwards wanted to return now and placed an imaginary help wanted notice (the same way he once advertised himself for rides in trade publications). It would read something like this:

Veteran star from the Midwest. A long record of winning results at Roush Fenway Racing and JGR. Consistent championship contender.

Sound familiar?

The reasons that Kenseth couldn’t find a ride for 2018 are the same that would be facing Edwards, who might offer a more camera-friendly persona but actually has less impressive on-track credentials.

This is the current reality of Cup for stars who once could command high salaries: Be ready to accept a steep pay cut with a smile.

It’s why it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Edwards returns, particularly when considering his objective of reconnecting with his roots seemingly has been realized.

“I’m an all-or-nothing person, sometimes to my detriment,” he told the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “It’s taken about a year to actually wind down. I’m just now becoming the friend and person I should be to a lot of people that I basically didn’t spend a lot of time with for a long time. It’s an amazing opportunity, and I’ve really been enjoying it.”

Good for Edwards, who is an analytical and meticulous personality so well known for his planning, many peers have joked about him being a survivalist “prepper.”

Maybe our shock at his abrupt exit was misguided.

Edwards might have foreseen a bigger surprise was in store.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has ‘some interest’ in being part of group that buys Carolina Panthers

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not one of two race car drivers who are part of Felix Sabates’ group seeking to buy the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, according to the Associated Press.

NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver told the AP he hadn’t been asked by Sabates to join the group. But Earnhardt said he reached out to Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., about the possibility of being part of an effort to pursue the team.

SMI own Charlotte Motor Speedway and seven other NASCAR tracks.

“I said, ‘Hey, Marcus, if you guys are in the middle of it and you think it’s a good business deal, I definitely have some interest,'” Earnhardt told the AP. “But I am not one of the guys that Felix is talking about.”

Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, told the Charlotte Observer last week he was part of a local group in the Charlotte area seeking to buy the Panthers. Sabates said he is not in position to be the majority owner by a “long shot.”

Sabates’ group includes five businessmen, two of the team’s existing minority owners and two race car drivers, who Sabates declined to name.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is selling the team after it was revealed in December by Sports Illustrated that four former Panther employees received “significant settlements” for workplace misconduct that included “sexual harassment against female employees and for directing a racial slur at an African-American employee.”

NASCAR recently denied a report that CEO and Chairman Brian France was part of a group interested in buying the team.

Earnhardt, a noted fan of the Washington Redskins, recently retired from Cup racing after 18 full-time seasons on the circuit.

“I wouldn’t have the kind of money where I would move the needle too much, but it would be something to have a lot of pride in, and a good Charlotte NFL team is good for the city of Charlotte,” Earnhardt said. “I wish them success because of what it does for our community, not only from a pride standpoint, but an economical standpoint. I wouldn’t be a big player, and it wouldn’t be an investment that would really create a big change in my life.

“But I certainly would love to be supportive to the team and the success of the team to the community. That means a lot to me.”

Earnhardt will make his debut as a member of the NBC Sports broadcasting family next month during coverage of the Super Bowl and winter Olympics.

DC Solar to sponsor Chip Ganassi Racing in Cup, Xfinity races

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DC Solar will sponsor Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray in select Cup Series races and several Xfinity Series races this year, the team announced Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

DC Solar has backed Ganassi for the last three seasons in the Xfinity Series. It sponsored Brennan Poole‘s No. 48 Chevrolet for the last two seasons. Ganassi will only field one full-time car in the Xfinity Series this season.

The provider of mobile solar lighting devices will be on Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet and McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet in Cup. Both drivers will pilot the No. 42 in the Xfinity Series, along with John Hunter Nemechek.

McMurray hasn’t competed in the Xfinity Series since 2013.

DC Solar will make its Cup debut with Larson and the in the season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash exhibition on Feb. 11.

DC Solar provides mobile solar lighting solutions, EV chargers, and power stations to multiple tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, ISM Raceway (Phoenix) and Darlington Raceway.

The company has also partnered with ISM Raceway during its $178 million renovation project.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make NBC Sports debut with Super Bowl, Olympics coverage

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Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver, will make his debut as a member of the NBC family with the network’s coverage of next month’s Super Bowl and the winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Earnhardt, who just retired after 18 full-time seasons in the Cup Series, will be part of NBC’s pre-game coverage of the Feb. 4 Super Bowl in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

While there, Earnhardt will take part in outdoor events and activities taking place in city leading up to kickoff.

Earnhardt will then travel to PyeongChang, where he will explore the culture, people, and traditions in South Korea and experience the Olympics first hand. Earnhardt will visit the speed skating venue at Gangneung Ice Arena, and through the lens of a racer will view the speed, close contact, and tight turns on the speed skating oval.

Following a recent invite on social media from the U.S. bobsled team, Earnhardt will also travel to the Alpensia Sliding Center where he will get to ride in an Olympic bobsled.

The XXIII Olympic Winter Games begin Feb. 8.

“I’m excited to get to work with my new NBC family,” Earnhardt said in a press release. “Beginning with two huge events like the Super Bowl and Olympics, right out of the gate, should be quite the introduction. I’m looking forward to raising the profile of NASCAR, and all that we’re going to be doing during the 2018 season.”

Earnhardt will be an analyst on NBC’s coverage of the NASCAR season. The NBC portion of the Cup schedule begins July 1 at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN.

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Cody Coughlin joins GMS Racing in Truck Series

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GMS Racing announced Tuesday that it has signed Cody Coughlin to compete for the team in the Camping World Truck Series this season.

Coughlin, the son of NHRA driver and JEGS President John Coughlin, joins the team after one year driving for ThorSport Racing.

The 22-year-old driver will pilot the No. 2 JEGS Chevrolet in his second full-time season in the series.

“I couldn’t be more excited to join the GMS Racing family as well as be back running for Chevrolet,” Coughlin said in a press release. “GMS is a team that has proven to be one of the teams to beat every time they unload at the race track and now I have the same opportunity. I can’t thank GMS Racing, (team owners) Maury Gallagher and Mike Beam enough for this chance. I think we have the right tools and personnel in place with the No.2 team to run up front and contend for race wins every weekend.”

Coughlin joins Justin Haley, Dalton Sargeant and 2016 series champion Johnny Sauter.

Coughlin has 35 series starts since 2015. His best finish is third at Phoenix in November last season. It is his only top-five finish. He has three tops 10s.

The native of Delaware, Ohio, will be paired with crew chief Jerry Baxter. Baxter worked with Kaz Grala in 2017. Together they won the season opener at Daytona and earned five top fives and 11 top 10s.

Baxter has 10 wins as a crew chief in the Truck Series, including five with Darrell Wallace Jr.

“I’m more than ready to get the 2018 season underway,” Baxter said in a press release. “Last year we raced against Cody every weekend, so I have an idea of the type of driver he is. It will be even better to be able to work with him now firsthand. We have a good group of hard-working guys on the No. 2 that will definitely put us in the position to run well every time we’re at the track.”

The 2018 Truck Series season begins Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway.

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