Carl Edwards at Sonoma: ‘I haven’t considered coming back’

Carl Edwards has only become happier and more content in the months since his decision to step away from NASCAR, he told a small group of reporters Saturday — and has no intention of returning to a race car anytime soon.

Edwards, at Sonoma Raceway to give away a pickup truck on behalf of sponsor Stanley Tools, said he’s enjoying life away from racing. Despite his name being floated for open rides such as Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88, Edwards said he isn’t interested.

“I’ve been talking to a bunch of people and weighing my options — no, just kidding,” he said with a laugh. “No, not at all. I haven’t talked to anyone and I haven’t even considered coming back. Not right now.

“I think it’s pretty clear if I really want to do something, then I would do it. But like I said in January, I would talk to Coach (Joe Gibbs) first — and I haven’t had any conversations about that.”

The only communication he’s had with Gibbs was to write a recent thank-you note reiterating his appreciation to both drive for the team and being allowed to step away when the time was right. Edwards watched Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement news conference and related to the aspect of walking away “on his terms,” Edwards said, calling his own situation a “blessing.”

But Edwards said he hasn’t paid attention to NASCAR news with his name in the rumor mill, nor has he watched the races.

“I don’t watch much TV,” he said.

So what has Edwards been up to? Well, a lot.

He was in Maui this week doing some surfing and exploring the island with artist Dale Zarrella, among others. Edwards has also learned to sail — both in the Virgin Islands and Florida — as well as continuing to fly medical patients through a Cessna program. Edwards and Toyota also set a land speed record for an SUV, going 230 mph in May.

He spent the last month planting crops at his Missouri farm and now plans to travel during the summer — since he didn’t have much of a chance to do that during his racing career.

If he ever returns to a car, it might not be in NASCAR. He mentioned speaking to Global Rallycross driver Steve Arpin about trying one of those cars at some point.

“When I’m ready to drive again, that would be fun to just go do a (GRC) test or something like that,” Edwards said. “I like sliding cars around sideways and (having) tons of horsepower.”

That actually describes what NASCAR drivers do at Sonoma, which made the trip bittersweet for Edwards. This was his third trip to a racetrack this season — he also attended the Phoenix test in January to help successor Daniel Suarez and showed up on Friday of the Atlanta weekend in March for the same reason — but Sonoma was “the toughest one for me.”

“I definitely miss parts of it,” he said. “I would love to be getting in a car to go qualify today. But it’s just like anything — there’s things that are good and things that are bad, but the good for me far outweighs the bad. Just super appreciative to go do the things I’m doing now and enjoying life.”

Edwards said there wasn’t much else to say about himself. So he looked at the reporters, each of whom he’d greeted by name with a handshake and a warm smile, and turned the tables.

“How’s everything going for you guys?” he asked.


News Analysis: Jimmie Johnson signs contract extension

What happened: Jimmie Johnson is not ready to join the exodus of star drivers and drive off into the sunset just yet. The seven-time champion, whose contract was set to expire at the end of the season, has signed a three-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports that would keep him in the No. 48 car through 2020. In addition, Hendrick announced Lowe’s will return for 38 races next season.

What it means: If Johnson had chosen to walk away after this season, it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise. He turns 42 in September and has won far more money and trophies than he could have ever dreamed. But he’s still competitive and has a desire to race, so the idea of driving until age 45 — the age Matt Kenseth is now — seems fine to him. Heck, he might even race beyond that point. Johnson is obviously in outstanding shape and his performance isn’t dropping off (he’s already won three times this season). So as long as he’s enjoying himself and can maintain the work-life balance between NASCAR and raising his two young daughters, why not keep racing?

News value (scale of 1-10): Let’s go with a 6 here. The news in this case is really that Johnson has no plans to retire anytime soon. We’ve been so used to NASCAR’s big names calling it quits lately — between Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — that one of them opting to stick around for awhile seems to buck the trend.

Questions: In addition to the seven titles, Johnson has 83 wins; how many more can he get in the next three-plus seasons? Will crew chief Chad Knaus (whose contract runs through the end of next season) stick with Johnson for the duration? How will this affect Hendrick’s driver development plan?

Fan reactions weigh on Dale Jr. during retirement news conference

Silence blanketed the Hendrick Motorsports Team Center building Tuesday afternoon for three long minutes before Dale Earnhardt Jr. strode across the stage wearing a suit and tie.

Hardly anyone said a word. No music played. Just silence, save for the sound of people shifting in their chairs.

What was about to come in an hour-long news conference to discuss Earnhardt’s decision to retire? The tone was unclear, but it seemed like he could handle it in a variety of different ways.

Perhaps he’d be excited and buoyant, pumped about the future after making a decision to step away.

Maybe he’d get choked up, overcome with emotion over realizing his full-time racing career was coming to an end.

Or he could bring a motivational angle to the speech, trying to cheer his massive fan base and tell them everything was going to be OK.

In reality, it wasn’t any of those things. While Earnhardt said he was at peace with his decision and was happy with his career, he was solemn and “spun out” because he was fretting over how the news would be received by his fans.

Typical Earnhardt. A man driven by a fear of letting anyone down and a sense of duty to those he loves spent his retirement news conference thinking about other people instead of himself.

By the time he took the stage, most of those close to him had already been informed. He made a round of phone calls Monday night, breaking the news to a variety of people.

His fans, though, didn’t know until the news was made public Tuesday morning. And he was nervous as to how they’d react, because he didn’t want to bring them any pain.

“I’m very sad because I know that it’s definitely disappointing for a lot of people to wake up to that news this morning,” he said. “I know we’ve got a lot of fans that are very sad, for lack of a better way to describe it.

“So I feel that emotion as well, that what I’ve announced today has had that effect on a lot of people.”

Indeed, it was a tough day for his fans. Those on Twitter used words like “lost” and “heartbroken” to describe their emotions, spending the day crying their eyes out. People compared it to a breakup; others described it, sincerely, as one of the saddest days they’d experienced.

Those who aren’t hardcore Earnhardt fans might scoff at such reactions, but they’re very real. Even those fans who never met Earnhardt feel like they know him, because he speaks their language and they feel a connection — even if it’s a one-way relationship.

Earnhardt knows this, of course. He’s seen countless people rendered speechless or moved to tears by meeting him over the years. So even if the emotions seem silly to outsiders, Earnhardt wasn’t taking them lightly on Tuesday.

That he cares so much is a testament to why he became popular in the first place.

But after the initial shock, his fans may discover it’s not really the end. First, there are 28 more races this year where they get to say goodbye — a chance not all fans get (just ask Carl Edwards supporters).

Then, there are future races — at least two in the Xfinity Series next season and probably more to come — which will ease the transition for everyone.



Plus, he’ll still be around — just in a different capacity, he said. And that thought might help some fans dry their tears.

“I really enjoy making people happy,” he said. “I think I can replicate that in the next chapter of my life.”

Initial thoughts on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement decision

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has decided to retire after this season, as announced Tuesday morning by Hendrick Motorsports.

The news just broke, so I’m still collecting my thoughts, but here are some early reactions:

— We all knew Earnhardt would stop probably racing within the next few years, but it’s still really jarring now that the news is real. To see the words “Dale Earnhardt Jr.” and “retiring” sort of leaves a pit in the feeling of your stomach, because it’s really the end of an era. When you take into account that a very large percentage of NASCAR fans are part of Junior Nation, there will be many people who feel lost, saddened and unsure of where this leaves them now. The positive for them is they’ll have 28 more races to watch their favorite driver and prepare to say goodbye instead of just dealing with a sudden departure.

— In February of last year, I tagged along with Dale Jr. for a day to visit one of his car dealerships in Florida. The conversation turned to how much longer he might want to race (this was before the concussion) and something he said has stuck with me.

“I’m in great cars,” he said then. “How long will I have great cars? When I’m not in great cars anymore, driving cars might not be fun. I’ve saved my money, so I don’t have to be doing this. But I love it, because I’ve got great cars.”

We’ll find out more about his reasons during a retirement news conference later today, but he doesn’t seem to be having as much fun this year. His team isn’t running well or getting good finishes and he’s already in a big hole for making the playoffs — and it’s still only April.

It makes sense that would ask himself: Do I really want to do this all of this year and next year if I’m not going to be running up front and winning?

I don’t have any insight into his reasoning, but I’m guessing that played some sort of role.

— One driver does not make a sport. But Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt made up a trifecta of star power — with Earnhardt being arguably the biggest star NASCAR has ever had — that transcended racing and could reach across the lines of sports and pop culture.

No, NASCAR isn’t going to die just because Earnhardt is leaving — nor will it be on life support. But NASCAR is sick, and it’s serious.

After Gordon left, there was unquestionably an impact on NASCAR attendance, TV ratings and interest. Some fans followed him throughout his career and were putting up with things they didn’t like about NASCAR just because they wanted to still watch their favorite driver. Once he was gone, they stopped watching and attending.

The same will happen with Earnhardt, but perhaps on a larger scale. That’s not good for a sport that’s already been struggling.

Thanks to the TV deal where FOX and NBC overpaid by billions, NASCAR (and the tracks, which get TV money) will be stable financially for awhile. But these next five or so years will be absolutely crucial in the sport’s history, because now is the time where NASCAR either builds new superstars or continues to trend downward.

Look, Earnhardt wasn’t going to be around for much longer regardless of whether it was this year or a couple years, so the time was coming when NASCAR would have to figure out how to exist without leaning on him. As it turns out, that time is starting in 2018.

— It’s a relief to know that Earnhardt will (hopefully) be leaving the sport by his own choice — not one made by doctors.

During that interview last year in Florida, he said: “The one thing I’m scared of is you’re physically injured and it just ends. It’s jerked out from under you. You don’t want that. You want it to be on your terms. Like, ‘Alright man, I think I’m done.’ You get months to mentally absorb it. If it’s thrown right there in your lap and it’s like it’s over, that’d be so emotional.”

When he suffered the concussion last summer that made him miss half the season, it seemed like a very real possibility he might not be able to race again — and that the end of his career wouldn’t be on his terms.

Now, as long as he stays healthy for the remainder of the season, Earnhardt will be able to climb out of the car in the way he wants. All the hard work it took for him to come back in the first place has to be more than worth it for him in that regard.

— Oh, so what about his replacement? The logical choice would be Alex Bowman, because he’s already worked with the 88 team and done well there (he almost won Phoenix, remember?). Bowman at least deserves a shot, and future star William Byron wouldn’t be hurt by spending another year in the Xfinity Series anyway.

But at the same time, I’m sure there are MANY drivers outside Hendrick Motorsports who would literally give up their pinkie toe for a chance to drive the 88 car, so perhaps it’s not so obvious.

— On a personal and professional level, I’m really going to miss covering Earnhardt. There’s something about his combination of candor, wit and humility that makes him the best interview in sports (at least that I’ve seen), and you really can’t replace a guy like that.

Dale Jr. is a normal dude trapped in a superstar’s life, and his fans identify with him because he acts and talks like they would if they found themselves in a similar situation.

Over the years, I’ve found Earnhardt to be respectful and genuine and someone who doesn’t try to hide behind corporate speak. There’s nothing fake about him, and people seem to connect with that. There’s a very sincere quality there, which is something you don’t find all that often with people of Earnhardt’s celebrity status.

The people who claimed Earnhardt was popular because of his last name have always missed the point. While the name may have led to his initial opportunity in the sport, he was able to cultivate an ever-growing fan base and keep it over time because of the person he is — not his name.