This story appears in the Aug. 8, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
EVERY FRIDAY BEFORE HIS RACE weekend begins, Carl Edwards meets with a horde of reporters, takes a deep breath and braces himself. "Okay," the Roush Fenway star says with a sigh, just a day before winning the June 18 NNS race at Michigan. "Let's get the 'Where are you going next year?' questions out of the way."
Welcome to another NASCAR Silly Season, the annual exhibition of musical chairs that sends drivers, crew chiefs and sponsors running up and down the paddock in search of the right seat and right combination. But the 2011 edition has been a one-man, two-team show: a tug-of-war between Sprint Cup superpowers RFR and Joe Gibbs Racing, with free-agent-to-be Edwards as the rope.
"It has not been boring," deadpans Edwards, who turns 32 on Aug. 15. "Growing up I'd read websites and racing magazines thinking, Oh, man, where's Bill Elliott or Ricky Rudd going to be next year? Being that guy now is pretty amazing. But you don't want it to be a distraction."
Especially when you're sitting atop the Cup standings and are the favorite to win your first series championship. Edwards wasn't in such a prime position a season ago, with RFR admittedly lost, having badly missed on preseason chassis construction and slowed by an outdated Ford engine. But an overhaul of the engineering department and implementation of the powerful FR9 engine pushed the No. 99 team to fourth in points by the end of last year. In Victory Lane, celebrating with Edwards at the May All-Star Race at Charlotte, Jack Roush beamed, "This certainly can't hurt contract negotiations."
If the 69-year-old owner sounds like a proud father, he has good reason. Roush gave the then-unknown Missourian a break in the Truck Series in 2003, then moved him into a Cup car the next season. Edwards, who negotiates his own deals, is a sucker for loyalty but has wondered aloud whether he's running on cruise control. "There's something to be said for a change of scenery," says Jeff Burton, whom Edwards replaced in 2004 after the vet left RFR for Richard Childress Racing. "I didn't want to leave, but as much as I won there, it had gotten stale."
Enter JGR, the garage where Edwards was spotted taking a tour before the July 2 Daytona race. President J.D. Gibbs has never been shy about his desire to add a fourth car, and Toyota won't hesitate to lure a driver from a rival. "There are so many pieces that have to fall into place," Gibbs says, "but if I told you we hadn't been running the math, I would be lying."
If you listen to the chatter around the Cup garage, JGR is younger (21-year-old Joey Logano), fresher (contenders Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin) and closer to a title than RFR. "Faced with that decision, it's hard as hell," says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was the talk of Silly Season in 2006 and '07 before leaving DEI for Hendrick Motorsports. His contract with HMS isn't up until the end of 2012, though he's already started negotiating an extension. "Seeing Carl brought it all back. No way I want to be that guy again."
Edwards would rather avoid the attention too, but the wrong choice could tarnish his racing legacy. And there's nothing silly about that.