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.

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Newgarden looks to continue streak of success at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – There are several drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series whose skill sets seem to be a perfect match for the mammoth race course at Road America. Josef Newgarden is one of those drivers.

In the three years since IndyCar’s return to the 4.014-mile, 14-turn road course located in this lakeside resort region of Wisconsin, Newgarden has been a central part of the storyline.

In 2016, when he was driving for Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden was involved in a massive crash at Texas Motor Speedway with Conor Daly, suffering a broken hand and a broken clavicle. He had JR Hildebrand on standby to drive his car at Road America on Friday, but after he was cleared to return to the cockpit, Newgarden began his comeback on Saturday.

He was on a fast lap in his qualification group, but went into the Carousel portion of the course too fast and ended up qualifying 20th. Despite his injuries, Newgarden battled back to an eighth-place finish.

In 2017, his first season with Team Penske and a year when he would go on to win the NTT IndyCar Series championship, Newgarden started third and led 13 laps.

That was before a shootout with leading challenger Scott Dixon on a Lap 31 restart. Dixon hit the throttle at the green flag, raced Newgarden down the long front straight, and dove to the inside of Turn 1 to make what proved to be the race-winning pass.

Newgarden and Team Penske learned a valuable lesson, and made sure it wouldn’t happen again in 2018. Newgarden won the pole and led 53 laps in the 55-lap contest before fending off a strong challenge from Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the race.

Newgarden returns as the NTT IndyCar Series points leader and kicks off the second half of the season in the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, Noon ET on NBC).

He comes off his third win of the season on June 8 at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Road America, one of the classic road courses in the world, delivers a vastly different style of racing. But it does help to have some momentum on your side.

“Yes. I think we’ve had good momentum throughout the year,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “We’ve had some bobbles that can shake that, but we’ve been good at not letting a bobble shake our confidence. I feel really good about where we are at. This win at Texas was a good time to have it with everyone going into the break feeling pretty good about things and having a weekend off.

“We just need to pick back up now. We can’t slow down. It’s the second-half push for the championship. We have to stay on it now to the finish.”

There are nine races completed in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, which leaves eight races remaining in the fight for the title. Newgarden has a 25-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport and a 48-point lead over Team Penske teammate and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud.

The second half begins in the “Land of Bratwurst,” just a few miles from Johnsonville, Wisconsin, and at a track that thoroughly earns the reputation as “America’s National Monument of Road Courses.”

“I’m a big fan of Road America,” Newgarden said. “It’s one of our last ‘old school’ tracks in the world. It’s an ultimate IndyCar track. It has a little bit of everything. It’s tantalizing. If you make a mistake around Road America it penalizes you. I think drivers like that. You don’t want it easy. You don’t want a ton of runoff. It has great high-speed sections. Very classic corners. It’s very high commitment brake zones, quick, long straights so an Indy car can open its legs up a lot. It’s really what you think of when you go to a high-speed, IndyCar road course. And, it’s a beautiful backdrop. Elkhart Lake is a gorgeous part of the country, especially in the summer time when we go there.

“It’s a classic facility. One of my favorite tracks in the world.”

Newgarden also has high-praise for the Wisconsin race fans, who come out in the tens of thousands and start camping on Thursday and stay through the end of Sunday’s race, which regularly draws over 50,000 fans.

“There is tremendous support there,” Newgarden said. “The place seems full on race day. It adds to the ambience of the track. It’s pretty, even when nobody is there, but when you feel it up with all the people and the campers, it takes it to a different level. They really do come out and support it. They are very knowledgeable people to our series and what is going on. I think the drivers appreciate that. They know what is going on all year.”

From a driver’s standpoint, this race is fairly straightforward, strategy-wise. According to Newgarden, the variance of strategy depends on who can go the longest on one tank of fuel. The normal fuel window is between Laps 11-15. If a driver dives into the pits early, then he’s committed to racing as hard as possible to build up a gap on the field in order to get in and out of the pits before the other drivers on a normal pit stop strategy.

“Fuel matters there and the longer you can run on a stint, it seems to help you. That is where you see the strategy difference,” Newgarden explained. “Overall, the general layout of pit stops is pretty straightforward in that race. Unless an oddball yellow comes out, if you are running out front, that is the strategy you can going to run.

“We have conversations before the race what we are trying to do. There are different points where you need to be pushing and are flat-out and not worried about fuel and other points where you need to be saving as much as you can. There is always a fine-line. You are generally always trying to save some fuel by going as fast as possible, which is a very conflicting thought process, but that’s what we are always trying to do.

“It really depends on how the race flows. At Road America, when the yellows fall, that will dictate what we are doing, and I will get feedback from the pit. It’s all relative. It depends on whether I’m in the front or in the back. If I’m up front and the yellow falls at a weird time, they will let me know what other people are doing and if that changes our game. If it does, then I will adjust what I’m doing.

“It’s always a moving target, but you try to plan this stuff out. If it’s a green race all the way through, here is the plan and if the yellows fly, then this is what we are going to do. We try to plan all of that out before the race starts and stuff starts happening, you know how to react.”

Newgarden has learned from his mistakes at Road America and that is one reason why he is once again a major threat to win this race. Despite his broken hand and broken clavicle in 2016, his eighth-place finish was in many ways a victory.

“It was a very good weekend in a lot of ways,” Newgarden recalled. “Just getting back out on the track and not lose ground in the championship as very important to me. I was very satisfied we were able to do that. It took a lot of support and help, and everyone pitched in to get it done. I was a little bit disappointed. I think we had a much faster car than eighth place in 2016. I made a mistake in qualifying. I pushed wide in the Carousel and it put us 20th. We could have probably started in the top five in that race and had a shot at the podium and maybe a win there. If anything, I was disappointed at where we qualified and where there that put us.

“But it was a great recovery. It was a great weekend overall. Getting a top-10 was really a win in a lot of ways. I think there was more to be had that weekend, though.”

In 2017, he was ready to challenge for the victory, but was a victim of bad timing.

“We got nipped by that yellow at the wrong point,” Newgarden explained. “We were on the wrong tire. Right as we came out of the pits on the Black tires, Scott came out on new Reds. It was a yellow when we didn’t need it. To get the tires up to temperature for the restart was really our challenge in that race. Ultimately, it did us in, in Turn 1. We didn’t get a great launch off the final corner, Scott dragged alongside and completely the pass in Turn 1.

“We didn’t make that mistake last year, tire-wise, when the yellow came out at the end of the race and had a shootout.”

His win last year gave off the image of having the field under his control. But the driver pointed out it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

“That was actually a very tough drive,” Newgarden recalled. “I wish that drive was a lot easier than it was, but it was very difficult to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay behind us last year. He was really the guy hounding us the whole race and had a lot of pace, probably more pace than us in different parts of that race. Trying to keep him at bay and doing what we needed to do to get in the right window, it was not an easy drive. If it was an easy drive, we would have sprinted off into the distance a little more. We really had to work hard to hit our windows and make sure Ryan stayed behind us.

“It was a tough day; it was a long day. We had to do a lot or work to run that whole race. We had a very consistent race car. It was very predictable and easy to drive. I had the speed and the car underneath me so that I could manage the situation.”

The ability to manage the situation is a great quality to have for any driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. In Newgarden’s case, it may be the key ingredient to winning a second IndyCar championship.