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.

Chase Elliott leads drivers with career-best days at Sonoma

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Chase Elliott said his third Cup start at Sonoma Raceway, which ended with a career-best fourth-place finish at the road course, was a “lot more fun” than his first two trips.

Elliott, who also started a career-best third, earned his second top 10 and first top-five finish at the track.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver was one of four who placed in the top 10 for career-best finishes in Sunday’s race at the road course. The others were Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman.

“I made a lot of gains, personally, I think, for me at this track,” Elliott told Fox Sports 1. “It’s been one of my worst.”

Elliott started and finished eighth in the race last year. He placed 21st his rookie season.

On Sunday, he positioned his No. 9 Chevrolet to finish Stage 1 in fourth and Stage 2 in second.

He was running second late in the final stage until Kevin Harvick and his fresher set of tires passed him with nine laps to go. Elliott was later passed by Clint Bowyer.

“To come here and have pace on Friday and qualify good on Saturday, and to have pace today, it was just a lot more fun,” Elliott said. “We had a fast Chevrolet all three days. And that’s nice to show up and get rhythm. We kind of had to pick our battles today. We elected to get some stage points and that set us back a little for that last stage, but I don’t think we had the pace that the leaders had.”

Elliott’s result was his fourth top five this season and his first in six races.

In his second Sonoma start, Jones started 20th and finished seventh, a significant improvement over his 25th-place finish from his rookie year.

The result came after his No. 20 Toyota suffered minor damage from contact with Michael McDowell at the beginning of Stage 1.

“It was a great day for us, really,” Jones told FS1. “I felt like it’s a little like a win for us. We were aiming for a top 15 today and to get a top 10 is just a bonus.

The result is Jones’ second top 10 in the last nine races.

Behind Jones was Almirola, who earned his first top-10 finish in seven Sonoma starts. His previous best result was 14th in 2015.

“We are just plugging away,” Almirola said. “As solid as they come. We are a top-10 car and this just goes to show me and all of our guys that we are a top-10 car everywhere. I have just run top 10 at my two career worst race tracks, Pocono (seventh) and Sonoma. If we can do that, that is incredible.”

Almirola, who helped put all four Stewart-Haas Racing cars in the top 10 for the second time this year, has earned career-best results at five tracks this season: Sonoma, Pocono, Phoenix (seventh), Las Vegas (10th) and Michigan (11th).

“It speaks true volumes about how great this race team is and how great our race cars are because they carry me at those two places where I know I struggle,” Almirola said. “I have tried really hard to become a better road course racer and I put a lot of effort into this weekend running the K&N (West) car to help me for today and it certainly did.”

Almirola placed second in Saturday’s K&N West race.

Another driver who pulled double duty this weekend was Bowman.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver placed ninth for his first Sonoma top 10 in three starts. He previous results were 29th and 31st.

“(Crew chief) Greg (Ives) made a good call on the box to I guess one (pit) stop that (in the final stage),” Bowman said. “It looked like some people two stopped it, but I don’t know, I still don’t feel like I do a very good job at these places, but I feel like I learned some today.  Definitely made some mistakes and there is plenty I can improve on to keep getting better and learning. That is all we can really ask for.” 

Daniel Suarez misses Sonoma top 10 after contact with Jimmie Johnson on last lap

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Daniel Suarez was on the verge of his first top-10 finish at Sonoma Raceway until he was spun by Jimmie Johnson on the last lap of Sunday’s race.

Suarez was running in 10th when slight contact from Johnson as they navigated Turn 4 sent his No. 19 Toyota around.

After recovering, Suarez managed to place 15th, one spot better than his 2017 result. Johnson went on to finish 11th.

“We started wheel hopping after 10 laps into a run,” Suarez told Fox Sports 1. “We just missed something with the brakes. … After finally we figured it out, I felt like maybe we had a top-10 car. We just got dumped on the last lap.”

Suarez said that Johnson apologized to him about the contact.

“I was loose, so it didn’t take a lot for someone to spin me out,” Suarez said. “He didn’t hit me hard, he just put his bumper there a little bit. It was enough to spin me out because I guess I was loose already. We came from a little rough few weeks and a top 10 was going to be nice for us.”

Suarez has not finished better than 15th in the five races since he placed third at Dover.

What Drivers Said after Sonoma race

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Martin Truex Jr. — Winner: “Last year, I felt like we had the best car, and we didn’t win and then this year I wasn’t sure we could beat (Kevin Harvick). We were real equal. He was better early in the race. I felt like we caught up to him a little, but he was going to be hard to beat either way. To get off strategy was the perfect call and then you just hope it works out for you, so sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes you’re the windshield.”

KEVIN HARVICK — Finished 2nd: “I don’t really know what is going on up on the pit box and who is doing what. I just do what I am told. Those guys do a great job. You make some right ones, you make some bad ones and sometimes you guess right and sometimes you guess wrong. Who knows what is right or wrong. I thought that was a good call at the end to put tires on in case the caution came out. We got right back up to where we were running and put ourselves in position to have a chance in case the caution came out.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 3rd: “I am happy to be in this equipment and have this opportunity, but I am also frustrated because we were one of the three that were the class of the field and had a legitimate shot at racing for a win. They just took a little different strategy than we did and that is what it took. You had to separate yourself some way. It was a lot of fun out there. I had my struggles just like they did. It seemed like (Kevin Harvick) had a little better turn than I did, and (Martin Truex Jr.) was better. On long runs, I was coming to him, especially that real long run we had. Then we started pitting, and I didn’t know what to expect. All in all, it was a solid day, and I am proud of the guys for going out there and getting the job done. We just came up a little short.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 4th: “It was a lot more fun, this trip out here, than it was the last two times. I made a lot of gains, personally, I think, for me at this track. It’s been one of my worst. To come here and have pace on Friday and qualify good on Saturday, and to have pace today, it was just a lot more fun. We had a fast Chevrolet all three days. And that’s nice to show up and get rhythm. We kind of had to pick our battles today. We elected to get some stage points, and that set us back a little for that last stage, but I don’t think we had the pace that the leaders had. So, it was a good finish for me, and we’re looking forward to the next road race.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 5th: “I thought we had enough to beat (Chase Elliott), maybe. That’s where our strategy put us there. Overall a good day for us. We struggled being able to find speed here, and I don’t know, it’s just a little bit each lap. There’s a few areas on the track where I kind of lack at, but it’s hard to make up that ground and then beat somebody that is so good here like (Martin Truex Jr.) and (Clint Bowyer). I feel like those guys all have that and we’re just the best of everybody else.”

Kurt Busch — Finished 6th: “I went 12 rounds, and there should be no-decision today. I feel like we gave it everything we could. We didn’t have superior lap times in the beginning and then we figured we would just do a two-stopper at the end. That is what won it last year but I was on a three-stopper last year and a two-stopper this year. I feel like we did everything we could to just find the right rhythm and you never know when yellows will come out, but we were in position. We were a top-five car and couldn’t quite hold off my little brother at the end. We battled.”

Erik Jones — Finished 7th: “It was a great day for us, really. I felt like it’s a little like a win for us. We were aiming for a top-15 today and to get a top-10 is just a bonus. We struggled a bit on the first run. Once we got an adjustment under it, and I started to get settled in and comfortable with racing through traffic, we just kind of started plugging along and picking up spots. Our strategy worked out for us.”

Aric Almirola Finished 8th: “We are just plugging away. As solid as they come. We are a top-10 car, and this just goes to show me and all of our guys that we are a top-10 car everywhere. I have just run top 10 at my two career-worst racetracks, Pocono and Sonoma. If we can do that, that is incredible. It speaks true volumes about how great this race team is and how great our race cars are because they carry me at those two places where I know I struggle.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 9th: “Yeah, Greg (Ives, crew chief) made a good call on the box to I guess one-stop that. It looked like some people two -topped it, but I don’t know, I still don’t feel like I do a very good job at these places, but I feel like I learned some today.  Definitely made some mistakes and there is plenty I can improve on to keep getting better and learning. That is all we can really ask for.”

Chris Buescher — Finished 12th: “Yeah, it was a good finish there at the end. I’m proud of this team for the work put in this weekend. I didn’t get as much out of qualifying as I needed to, and it put us a little bit behind there at the start, but through some excellent strategy and a good car, we gained a lot of points today.  It was a good day.  I enjoy road racing, something to break it up a little bit, and I’m ready for the next one.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 18th: Even though we didn’t run up front all race, this race comes to down to attrition and pit strategy. Brian (Pattie, crew hief) made an excellent call resulting in my best finish here.”

William Byron — Finished 25th: “I felt like the biggest thing was just trying to learn the racetrack. The first run was really tough and after that I felt like our pace got a little bit better and improved. If I could have started the weekend where I finished the race, I feel like I have a much better idea what I needed. Now we will go back and write some notes to see how we can improve for the next road course race.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 33rd: “Today wasn’t the ending that we wanted, but I’m not going to let a mechanical issue bring this team’s morale down. There were bright spots this weekend that are worth focusing on. This is only my second time ever racing here, and I continued to learn more about how to get through this course.

Jamie McMurray — Finished 37th: “Something with the oil pump pulley mechanism broke. I really don’t know. They were going to try to fix it, but when that breaks, the engine shuts off on its own like in an oil protection mode, and we started the engine a couple of times, we kind of tricked the engine to not think it was in that mode. And so, I think they were a little worried now that maybe it ran too long and  … we are not going back out.  They are going to work on it for a while, so our day is done.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 38th: “I haven’t missed a shift on a road course in 10 years. It was just me. I was trying to be so patient and so smooth. It was unexpected. It’s on me. I let everybody down here. The car was good. I don’t know if it was a race-winning car. We needed a little work on the long run, but it’s just all on me. I don’t know what else to say. I just let everybody down.”

With fewest Cup winners through 16 races since 1978, who’s in playoffs on points?

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With 10 races remaining in the regular season and 10 spots still up for grabs, the points battle remains fierce in NASCAR’s premier series — and most of non-winners held serve Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

There was only minor shuffling among those without a victory who still are vying for a playoff spot. Ryan Blaney (11th) fell two spots in the rankings, while Kyle Larson (ninth) and Aric Almirola (10th) each gained a spot.

But all still hold provisional playoff spots along with Brad Keselowski (fourth), Kurt Busch (seventh), Denny Hamlin (eighth), Jimmie Johnson (12th), Chase Elliott (13th), Erik Jones (14th) and Alex Bowman (15th). Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16th) is 17 points behind Bowman for the final provisional playoff spot.

Sonoma marked Martin Truex Jr.‘s third victory this season. Other winners who have clinched playoff berths in the 16-driver field for the 10-race playoff that begins Sept. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Austin Dillon.

The last time there were so few winners through 16 races was 40 years ago. In the first 16 races of the 1978 season, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip had accounted for all of the wins.

Kyle Busch, who finished fifth at Sonoma, remains the leader in the 2018 points standings by 72 points over Kevin Harvick (second Sunday to Truex). Winning the regular-season championship results in 15 playoff points, vs. 10 for the runner-up.

Click here for the Cup Series points standings after Sonoma.