NASCAR: Is Edwards a lame duck or could he still bag 2014 title?

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In two of the last three years, some member or partner of a prominent NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team was set for a departure at year’s end – and yet that prominent team still went onto win the series championship in the Chase.

So could this occur for Carl Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing in the wake of the long awaited, now official news that they’re going their separate ways for 2015?

It all depends on how they handle their impending breakup down the stretch.

First, the recent history:

In 2011, Tony Stewart informed Darian Grubb his crew chief services would no longer be needed at the end of the season. Then Stewart, who’d gone winless in the opening 26 “regular season” races and barely made the Chase, then went on a hot streak of posting five wins in the 10-race playoff – thanks in part to some key calls by Grubb – as the pair bagged the title.

In 2012, Team Penske announced it would leave Dodge for Ford for 2013 – with Dodge then essentially being resigned to the scrap heap on the Cup level at year’s end. No matter – Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe were dynamite for most of the season, particularly the second half from about July, as they swept through to their first title together and Roger Penske’s first at the Cup level.

Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress Racing announced they’d be parting ways at the end of 2013, but Harvick was still won four races – two in the Chase – and finished third in points in a full-press, rather than lame-duck finish to the end of their 13-year tenure together at the Cup level.

This now brings us to Edwards and RFR, who have still run decently at times this year and already bagged two wins in the first 20 races – same as Harvick had in the same time frame a year ago.

While Edwards said in a brief interview Sunday before the Brickyard 400 that the timing of this announcement by RFR was unfortunate, it should not distract from the goal at hand for the rest of 2014: namely, winning more races and then advancing through the stages of the new-for-2014 knockout Chase format.

Frankly, he’s the only guy with a shot to do it for Roush Fenway, a team which has steadily fallen from the ranks of the elite on the Cup level over the last few years and could use one final shot in the arm before entering a “rebuilding” phase with Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne in 2015..

Biffle sits 17th in points, only nine points behind Austin Dillon in 14th, who currently holds the last spot on the Chase grid coming out of the Brickyard. But Biffle will need a win at this juncture – likely at his and Roush’s usual stronghold facility of Michigan International Speedway next month – if he is to have a shot at making the Chase himself. Meanwhile Stenhouse Jr. has regressed in 2014 and ranks 27th in points.

Edwards will rise or fall in the Chase depending on his and his No. 99 team’s mindset these final 16 races together, the six leading into the Chase and the 10 Chase races themselves.

There has to be a certain level of frustration with the way the last few weeks, heck, few months, have played out as the will he-won’t he saga of leaving has played out in the media. Certainly Edwards would want to shift the focus and attention back to his on-track efforts rather than the soap opera of sorting out his future.

And there also has to be a level of wanting to end on a high note. Roush nurtured and developed Edwards from his time in the Camping World Truck Series, his time winning a wealth of Nationwide Series races before that stopped, and has molded him into the lead driver on the Cup side as veterans Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch have all gone their separate ways. You’d think, in theory anyway, Edwards would want to repay “the cat in the hat” with a title.

Edwards lost that 2011 title to Stewart on a tiebreaker – the closest he’s ever come to a Cup title and the closest Roush has come since winning the inaugural Chase, with Busch, in 2004.

Edwards has had that near top-level career in Cup without a top-level achievement – a Sprint Cup title. He’s in his last few months of the known, the comfort level that comes with being part of an organization for more than a dozen years through three series in NASCAR and a full decade at the top level itself. Wherever his next stop is (likely Joe Gibbs Racing), Edwards will need to develop a new chemistry with his new team, and that process takes time.

He has the potential to raise the collective game of the No. 99 group knowing this will be its last ride as a unit, or fall into the abyss of apathy over the second half of the season while thinking only of what’s next.

He may be leaving, but it would be great to see him end with a flourish rather than a whimper.

NASCAR America: Carl Edwards not on Roush Fenway 2015 roster


Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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