Top NASCAR Stories of 2014: No. 11 – Carl Edwards leaves Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing

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MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Today, we’re at No. 11 and how Carl Edwards became the second driver to leave Roush Fenway Racing in three seasons, and followed former teammate Matt Kenseth to Joe Gibbs Racing …

Carl Edwards knows all about the greener pastures that surrounded the town he grew up in, Columbia, Missouri.

He’d just have to drive maybe 10 minutes and he’d quickly transition from downtown Columbia to the rural area that surrounded it.

When Edwards appeared to stagnate at Roush Fenway Racing, the only Sprint Cup organization he’s known, he came to a career crossroads this past season.

Either he sign another contract renewal with RFR, or see if there might be a greener pasture elsewhere. After being wooed by several teams, Edwards made the ultimate decision to leave RFR and cast his fate beginning in the 2015 season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Edwards became the second former RFR driver to jump from there to JGR. Matt Kenseth did the same after the 2012 season. And in Kenseth’s first season with JGR in 2013, he earned a career-best and season-high seven wins.

Where Edwards was going – if he was going to go anywhere – was speculated about by fans and the media from the beginning part of the 2014 season. For months, Edwards kept denying rumors that he was going to this team or that team.

But in the end, he elected to move on and it will be interesting to see how he fits in at what he hopes will indeed be a greener pasture for him and his career – particularly the opportunity to win that long-elusive first Sprint Cup championship.

Edwards has been close to a title before. He actually tied Tony Stewart for the championship in 2011, only to lose the crown on the first tie-breaker, namely wins that season (Stewart had five, Edwards just one).

He went into somewhat of a tailspin the following two seasons, missing the Chase in 2012 and finishing last in the 2013 playoff field.

Edwards had been down this road before. He could have left after his last contract expired at the end of 2011, but chose to renew and remain with RFR for another three years.

This time, though, the 11-year Cup veteran chose to move on.

Edwards had a decent enough final season with RFR, winning two races (at Bristol and his first road course triumph at Sonoma), and adding seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes. But he also struggled, ultimately making the Chase, he failed to advance to the title-deciding Championship 4 Round, ultimately finishing ninth in the final standings.

It wasn’t just Edwards who seemed to be searching for additional horsepower, it was the entire RFR team. Greg Biffle made the Chase, but was quickly eliminated. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was never much of a factor in the season, finishing 27th in his sophomore campaign in Sprint Cup after winning back-to-back Nationwide Series titles.

How Edwards performs in 2015 is obviously anyone’s guess, but he certainly has the organization and the resources to succeed.

“To be able to bring a driver the caliber of Carl Edwards on board to launch our fourth team is just a thrill,” team owner Joe Gibbs said.

And in an ironic twist of fate, the crew chief that helped beat him in 2011, Darian Grubb, is now Edwards’ crew chief going forward at JGR.

Grubb led Tony Stewart to the championship in 2011, only to be dismissed immediately afterward. JGR picked up Grubb and he was Denny Hamlin’s crew chief the past three seasons, including getting Hamlin into the championship round.

But JGR decided to switch half its crew chief lineup around and Edwards will now have Grubb atop his pit box for the No. 19 JGR Toyota. The way we look at it, it’s a move for the better for Edwards, Grubb and Hamlin.

An interesting statistic about Edwards is he’s the fifth-winningest driver in the Cup series since 2005, with three of those top five, including Edwards, being JGR drivers: Jimmie Johnson is first (55 wins), followed by Kyle Busch (29), Tony Stewart (29), Denny Hamlin (24) and Edwards (23).

“For 10 years, I’ve worked as hard as I can … everyone has worked as hard as they can to go win championships,” Edwards said when he announced he was moving to JGR. “And that is my goal. I felt like, at this time in my life and career, a change might be something that would let me reach that goal.”

In addition to Edwards moving on, his former crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, also decided the time was right to move on, as well – as in onto semi-retirement.

Fennig, who won the first Nextel Cup (now Sprint Cup) championship with Kurt Busch in 2004, will remain a part-time consultant to RFR.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.