Spot News Writing
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com
Carl Edwards Steps Away with his Reputation Intact
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- It took 24 minutes to finally see some emotion from Carl Edwards. OK, actually it took 15 years and 24 minutes. He waited until just before he walked out the door.
Since Edwards made his NASCAR national series debut in June 2002, he has managed to walk an impressive tightrope between being frank but also guarded, public but also private and polite but also prickly. Thusly, Wednesday's shocking surprise press conference was the perfect Carl Edwards experience.
The 37-year-old racer announced that he would immediately be stepping out of his NASCAR Cup Series ride, barely one month ahead of what would have been his 13th Daytona 500 start and less than two months removed from coming within one ill-timed caution flag of winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Per usual, he navigated the biggest decision of his life by being both genuine and measured. But 24 minutes in, Edwards did something we hadn't seen before. He got choked up. Granted, it was only for about 20 seconds, long enough to pause and turn his back to the podium twice.
Then he cracked a joke about the camera shutters, stepped back into character, and continued on.
I hope you all enjoyed that brief glimpse into his soul, because that's all you're going to get.
Aside from the celebrations that followed his 28 Cup Series race wins, open emotion has never been his modus operandi. There will never be a "Crying Carl" meme. He's never going to give us that. Over the years he's always pulled that potential punch, sometimes literally.
Every time he was sad, he saw himself offstage with jokes, most famously during the postrace press conference after having just lost the 2011 Cup Series title to Tony Stewart via a tiebreaker.
Every time he was mad, he quickly curbed his rage with a smile, most infamously in 2007 when he was approached by teammate Matt Kenseth on pit road following a dustup at Martinsville Speedway.
He made like he was going to punch Kenseth in the face, but instead stopped short, smiled, and headed for the exit. And every time he stuck his verbal neck out in a race weekend media Q&A it become his routine to approach the reporter who'd asked the question after the press conference had ended to make sure his intended point was clear.
The point for the decision behind Wednesday's announcement was anything but clear.
The math that led up to his decision to come to his team owner, Joe Gibbs, in late December to say he was done is a complicated equation that only Edwards himself can see.
It's a long list. A list that ultimately outweighed this list: being at the top of his game while driving for NASCAR's current top team, Joe Gibbs Racing, while also still in the 30-something sweet spot age bracket for most stock car racing greats.
The brief catch in his throat was bracketed by 45 minutes of trying to explain his reasoning, which felt like 45 reasons to walk away and also 45 reasons why we shouldn't be so quick to rule out a return.
He said he wanted to spend more time at home, but refused to go into details on how his decision was playing back in Columbia, Missouri, with his wife and two children, even when asked a direct question about it.
The man who has always worked tirelessly to keep his wife and children out of the spotlight, living in Missouri instead of the Charlotte area, and has always chosen to avoid the usual racer's routine of walking the prerace grid with one's family in tow, admitted that he might one day like to step into the most intensely insane public spotlight of them all -- politics.
The man who has been on the cover of Men's Fitness and ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue declared himself 100 percent healthy, but admitted that he shared the same concerns of any modern athlete about his long-term health after a life of hard 150-plus mph hits, especially after the recent struggles of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
And during the same session when he repeated that he was completely satisfied with the accomplishments of his career -- 72 wins across NASCAR's top three series, a 2007 Xfinity Series title and four near-Cup Series championships -- he also reiterated multiple times that he would still be working with Gibbs and that he was done only with full-time racing.
"I refuse to use the r-word" he said of retirement.
hile Gibbs would later draw a comparison to fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, who walked away at the top of his game with no regrets, Toyota Racing executive Ed Laukes stated point blank that he believed Edwards would indeed return behind the wheel, sooner than later.
So, what was it that ultimately, finally, choked Edwards up for that one brief moment?
It was a question about his reputation and his ability over the years to maintain the image of a good, genuine person. It was that thought that clearly meant the most. The idea that after arriving as a literal aw-shucks Midwestern kid so long ago, he'd managed to keep his good name intact after a decade and a half of racing, winning, wrecking, and sometimes feuding.
"I'm sorry," he said after the long pause, turning back to face the podium after staving off the tears. "It's nice of you to say and ... it's important to be that kind of guy ... I just want to be a good person."
After 15 more minutes of questions, all answered with his more typical tone, Edwards exited stage left and, just like that, he was gone.
Before he'd even made it out of the parking lot to return home to his family in Missouri, a second press conference had already started.
Daniel Suarez, a 25-year-old aw-shucks kid from Monterrey, Mexico, posed for photos with his new orange Toyota Camry, his name already painted over the driver's side door.