Carl Edwards: Just how good is he really going to be?
With 21 Sprint Cup victories, 38 Nationwide Series wins (and a championship), and six Camping World Truck Series wins, there is no question that Carl Edwards will one day be enshrined in Charlotte as a NASCAR Hall of Famer.
And yet, question remains as to just how great the affable Missouri native will be at stock car racing's top level.
More so than any star driver in our sport, the Roush-Fenway Racing chauffeur cycles between hot and cold stretches with almost annual regularity. In 2005, he burst onto the scene with four wins (including back-to-back victories at Atlanta and Texas in the Chase) and a tie for second in the standings, though Roush teammate Greg Biffle won the tiebreaker with more wins (sound familiar?). The next year, he went winless and missed the Chase entirely. In 2008, he led the series with a career-high nine wins and was a brain fart at Talladega and a sick engine at Charlotte away from potentially stopping Jimmie Johnson's championship streak at two. Instead of being the man to end Johnson's reign at a trio of Cups, the 2009 campaign brought another winless year in which he was but an afterthought aside from his spectacular Talladega accident.
The story of Edwards' 2011 campaign has been hashed and rehashed countless times. One win - along with the pride and prestige of a Sprint All-Star race triumph - was nearly enough to carry the No. 99 team - a model of consistency both during the regular season and especially during the Chase - to its first championship. With one more point over the course of the final ten weeks of the season, they would have celebrated that crown. Instead, Tony Stewart's five-win blitz in the Chase was just good enough to tie Edwards, and the first championship tiebreaker in series history gave him his third title.
And just how did 2012 go? Yet another winless season.
Those three pairs of "from almost a hero to a clear zero" stretches were separated by a pair of decent, albeit unspectacular seasons in 2007 and 2010 (in terms of results only - no one would say Edwards was anything resembling unspectacular in 2010, at least with Brad Keselowski in the vicinity). If the pattern continues, Edwards will probably follow up his two-win 2013 campaign with another barn-burner, perhaps one that finally nets that long-awaited first championship.
It may have to if Edwards is to remain at Roush-Fenway, where he has raced since the 2003 Truck Series campaign. He is in a contract year, as is Biffle. It is highly unlikely that there are any two men who were more aware of how Matt Kenseth left the Roush organization after more than a decade for Joe Gibbs Racing and turned into a world-beater with career highs in wins and laps led. Tracks where he - and his two longtime teammates - had long suffered in unified mediocrity suddenly found the Wisconsinite up front with regularity (he nearly won at Martinsville, for Pete's sake).
Don't forget, that No. 20 car with which Kenseth had all of that success with very well could have belonged to Edwards. Gibbs, Toyota, and the Home Depot pushed extremely hard in 2011 to entice Edwards into the Camry before Ford ultimately stepped in and Roush was able to retain his most-marketable driver.
Will history repeat itself, with another chance to potentially see if the grass is really greener sitting in front of Edwards? One has to imagine that seeing Kenseth, who shared cars and resources with Edwards for more than eight seasons, leave Roush and experience unprecedented personal success in the car Edwards turned down the opportunity to drive was enough to at least get the wheels of curiosity turning. One-time archnemesis Kevin Harvick could provide another indication of what Edwards should do beyond 2014, with his move from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing.
It is easy for an outsider to sit and make the judgment that, for the betterment of his career, Edwards should leave Roush. Ford has been routinely outclassed by Chevrolet for decades now, and Toyota has sprung past the Blue Oval Brigade as well with Gibbs' success and the emergence of Michael Waltrip Racing as a legitimate weekly contender. Ford drivers - particularly Edwards and Biffle (who will turn 45 this year but could still be just as sought after given his raw driving ability) - seem held back from reaching their full potential by Ford's inferiority, something seemingly confirmed by Kenseth. Jumping into a Chevy SS or a Camry seems like just what the doctor ordered for fans to see what ol' Cousin Carl is really all about.
With his talent and - perhaps more importantly in this day and age - ability to attract sponsors (and give them every ounce of bang for their buck that he is capable of), Edwards will likely get quite a few intriguing offers for his services if he doesn't quickly re-sign with Roush. Most of the top organizations seem full, but few drivers of his caliber on both fronts that make a modern-day Sprint Cup star hit the market. Some, like Gibbs and Richard Childress Racing, could expand to accommodate him as they are currently under NASCAR's four-team limit
Whatever Edwards decides, whether to stay or to go, it is time to start getting some answers in regards to his ultimate stature in our sport. The lean periods he has gone through - coinciding with an overall lack of competitiveness for the Roush team - seem to make it obvious that we have yet to see what he can truly do over a stretch of time. Could he put together five-consecutive championships like Jimmie Johnson? Probably not, but he could certainly rise to a level of consistent contention that would take him from being one of the better drivers in NASCAR's history to one of its finest.