Ryan: Carl Edwards’ bombshell move fits the career pattern of a guarded star

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MIAMI – Carl Edwards didn’t seem as if he were someone in the middle of a midlife career crisis.

He was a man in the middle of a fashion emergency.

“Is anyone here a size 33/34 waist?” Edwards, clad in his firesuit, asked a group of NBC Sports producers and reporters entering an interview room last Nov. 17 at the Loews hotel in Miami Beach. “My motorhome broke down, and I need pants for a casual dinner.”

Four days from nearly capturing his first championship in NASCAR’s premier Cup Series division and without having a bed secured to sleep in at Homestead-Miami Speedway (the motorhome and his wardrobe were stuck in Tallahassee), Edwards calmly sat down and politely answered questions for 15 minutes.

His demeanor never changed from the NASCAR star who is always affable in front of a camera.

He didn’t betray the slightest of hints he would turn the NASCAR world upside down with the bombshell of the year on a previously quiet Tuesday morning seven weeks later.

You always know what you will get in an interview with Carl Edwards – a professional take on whatever the question is, and answered with the measured intelligence and perspective of a man who once taught high school on the side.

But it’s what you don’t know that always lingers from interactions with the strapping driver from Columbia, Mo.

That was the primary takeaway from the stunning news that Edwards is stepping out of NASCAR for 2017.

A news conference at Joe Gibbs Racing at 10 a.m. Wednesday is expected to explain the reasons for his sudden and stunning absence while at the top of his game.

Barring a mistake on a late restart in the Nov. 20 season finale at Miami, Edwards, who turned 37 last August, might be joining Formula One’s Nico Rosberg as the second champion in the past five weeks to leave the sport while ruling it.

Edwards will make it three consecutive seasons (in the wake of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart) that a star’s departure is a major storyline in NASCAR, but this one (at least initially) was shrouded in mystery.

We understood why Gordon and Stewart were hanging it up.

When Edwards takes the stage at JGR headquarters in Huntersville, North Carolina, the reasons he provides will be the first time that virtually anyone– even teammates and team members – will know why he elected to vacate the final year of a deal he signed in 2014 that seemingly set him up for several years.

Since Edwards informed team owner Joe Gibbs of his decision in mid-December, he hasn’t let many others in on the rationale.

Is this a temporary move in which he would return in 2018?

Is it driven by concerns about his health (his season ended with that wicked hit at Miami)?

Is it simply a desire to spend more time with family?

It isn’t unusual to have such questions about Edwards, who has been a bit of an enigma during his career. Stewart once referred to him as the “Eddie Haskell of NASCAR,” recalling the Leave It to Beaver character whose motives can cast suspicion. A decade ago, his Roush Fenway Racing teammates openly talked about struggling to understand Edwards (whom Kurt Busch said was nicknamed “The Carl.”).

Few drivers are more sponsor-friendly than Edwards, who is smooth and savvy with a corporate pitch.

Yet few also are more guarded about their personal lives. Edwards is among the only NASCAR drivers who isn’t on Twitter. If he was, it’s highly unlikely he would share the de facto family photo albums that so many stars do.

Edwards’ family always has been off limits to the news media. Stories that have reported the names of his kids or his wife’s place of employment have made Edwards livid, and he has demanded corrections that scrubbed the Internet of pertinent details.

While most of the NASCAR community lives in the Charlotte area, Edwards has made a home in Columbia, Mo. He owns a 425-acre farm there (and has declined several interview requests to discuss his work on it).

During that sitdown last November, Edwards explained how his Midwestern childhood had been “shaped by Tom Cruise movies. I wanted to be a pilot after I saw Top Gun. Motorcycles, chicks and airplanes and all that. Days of Thunder, the race car driver thing. Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to drive something. I was begging to drive.”

It was revelatory as to the forces that formed Edwards as a racer.

It also was a window into the life he will be choosing after he vacates a multimillion-dollar job that has earned him at least $80 million in winnings and annually compensates him in the eight figures.

“There are a bunch of things that make Missouri great,” Edwards said. “Really, it’s the people. I haven’t been anywhere where there’s better folks than Missouri.

“For me, the Midwestern mentality is pretty simple. It’s just do your job, do your work, be kind to people. Your reputation will follow. I’m really proud to be from Missouri.”

On Wednesday, we should learn why he is proud to return there.

It might offer rare insight into a man who always has worn the pants when it comes to his private life.