Carl Edwards watched in 2013 as Matt Kenseth switched teams and won a series-most seven Sprint Cup races in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing.
And he watched last year as Kevin Harvick changed teams and won five races, capped by the Sprint Cup championship in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing.
So, the template established, Edwards left the only Sprint Cup home he’s ever known, Roush Fenway Racing, after 11 years and joined former Roush teammate Kenseth with JGR. Change can be good.
He’s calling this season the Carl Edwards Rejuvenation Tour.
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“Yeah, I’m going to get T-shirts made to say that,” Edwards said with a laugh. “It’s a new challenge. I do feel like I’m starting over again, and it’s interesting. I didn’t expect that, and it’s a neat feeling, and I think it’s motivating.
“Jack Roush brought me down here 12 years ago for my first trucks race. I had all the anxiety and nerves. I feel that way right now.”
Edwards, who is from Columbia, won 23 Sprint Cup races in 373 starts for Roush Fenway in addition to the 2007 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series championship.
But Edwards, 35, was never able to bring home a Sprint Cup championship, finishing as runner-up in 2008 and 2011. The 2011 outcome was especially painful, finishing in a tie with Tony Stewart, only to lose the championship in a tiebreaker when Stewart beat him to the checkered flag in a one-two finish in the season finale at Homestead.
It was clear during the past two years that Roush Fenway had lost speed in its Fords, and when Edwards’ contract expired after the 2014 season, he became the biggest free agent in the sport. After Edwards won two races and finished ninth in the Chase, he brought his talent behind the wheel and ability to secure sponsorship to Gibbs’ faster Toyotas.
Edwards, who has yet to win a Cup race in 41 starts on the restrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega, locked the No. 19 Arris Toyota into the Daytona 500 field with the third-fastest time in last Sunday’s pole qualifying.
“Every time in the car I feel a little more comfortable,” he said. “Just the procedure for starting the car, the procedure for cooling the engine, the belts, the seat. Everything is different. The way Darian (Grubb) talks on the radio…”
Ah, Darian. Grubb is the crew chief who engineered Stewart’s victory over Edwards for the 2011 championship. He’s now Edwards’ crew chief after spending 2012 and 2013 calling the shots for Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.
“Darian and I had a really spirited conversation about it the other day,” Edwards said of the 2011 race at Homestead. “That race — and I always come back to this because that race should maybe bother me more than it does — but the reason I’m real content with it is that we performed so well.
“We qualified on the pole, led the most laps and we were leading before the last round of pit stops, and I’m proud of that. We had a lot of opportunities to crumble or make mistakes, and we didn’t. Tony and Darian just beat us, they got us and they earned it. I’m proud of our performance, but I’d love to have it over again and hopefully we get to do it again this year and win it.”
Edwards is still learning to speak Grubb’s language. During the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race last Saturday night, Grubb told Edwards to “dig, dig, dig.”
Edwards didn’t understand the instructions.
“I’m like, ‘Who is he talking to?’ I’m used to, ‘Go, go, go.’ I sat there like an idiot. Those things keep me awake at night.”
Kenseth said it was important that Gibbs brought in a driver who could contend for a championship as opposed to someone unproven.
“The way coach and everybody wanted to do that deal was to get somebody in there who can win right away and put all the pieces in place to perform right now, not looking five years or 10 years from now,” Kenseth said. “Certainly on paper the group we have assembled I think for teammates and for crew chiefs … everything looks like we should have four strong teams.”
Still, befriending former rivals like the intense Hamlin and temperamental Kyle Busch has not been easy.
“My teammates and I know each other very well, and that’s half the battle,” Edwards said. “We understand each other very well. I’ve watched Kyle Busch, and I’ve watched Denny Hamlin. I paid a lot of attention just because those guys have so much pure speed, and to me, this is an opportunity to combine forces with them and to share tricks and share ideas and hopefully make us all better.
“I’m very excited to learn from those guys. Overall, everybody is a good guy, and when you’re competing against people, everyone is different. The meetings are fun. Just the few meetings I’ve been in, everybody is really lighthearted there, and nobody pulls any punches. It’s kind of a brotherly atmosphere and gives each other a hard time. It’s cool.”
Kenseth, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion for Roush Fenway, has helped make the transition easy for Edwards.
“Matt has been huge,” Edwards said. “Matt kind of does things under the radar. He put together some meetings early on and some things I needed to be very aware of and really helped me a lot. He’ll be a guy I lean on a lot. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s a very good leader, and he has all the experience and success, so hopefully I can keep learning from him.”
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Thursday: Budweiser Duel at Daytona, Daytona International Speedway, 6 p.m. FS1
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Friday: NextEra Energy Resources 250, Daytona International Speedway, 6:30 p.m. FS1
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Saturday: Alert Today Florida 300, Daytona International Speedway, 2:30 p.m. FS1
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Sunday: Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway, noon FOX