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Always-guarded Carl Edwards' retirement a stunning turn

When rumors flew a couple of weeks ago about a driver retiring, Carl Edwards didn't come to mind. Maybe Danica Patrick was ready to hang it up. Maybe Jamie McMurray had enough.

But Edwards? The driver who has finished second in the standings two times and could taste a title twice only to have it slip through his hands?

Granted, it had appeared in December that he had not moved on from losing the championship in devastating fashion at Homestead-Miami Speedway a few weeks earlier. But he also talked about how winning a title after another disappointment would make a championship that much more meaningful. He appeared to have the motivation to continue.

Joe Gibbs Racing will have a news conference Wednesday, giving 37-year-old Edwards an opportunity to explain why he won't buckle up for the team in 2017. For a driver who likes things neat and tidy, he most likely won't say whether anything the team or NASCAR did sparked this decision.

Edwards showed no sign of injury after the accident, yet he is stepping away from the sport. Certainly any team would want him if he ever decides to return, but come February, his absence will have fans wondering what might have been and will be a blow to NASCAR that already has seen one superstar (Tony Stewart) retire after 2016.

The timing of the decision certainly leads to speculation of a variety of reasons Edwards could want to stop racing. Maybe Edwards was just mentally spent after another near miss at the championship. Maybe the Joe Gibbs Racing driving corps isn't as tight as it's portrayed. Maybe he really is a Ford guy who has a plan in the back of his mind to return to that stable in the future. Maybe he has another job lined up -- in television? -- and now was the time to leave JGR.

Edwards has always been hard to read, from what he was thinking in his battles with Brad Keselowski to his decisions to first remain at Roush Fenway and Ford in the name of loyalty then to finally leave for JGR amid the Roush decline.

He likes his business to be handled neatly, and he believes any friction should be handled privately, leading to criticism that he wasn't as genuine as other drivers. But that also has given him the persona as the ultimate professional publicly, and that is what has attracted fans and has allowed him to be a favorite of talk show hosts looking for a driver who can relate to fans and nonfans alike.

This timing certainly isn't tidy. It appears at least somewhat selfish, and it has created a scramble for JGR.

It would be hard to argue with Edwards, though. If his heart isn't in it or he doesn't want to race, he should sit out. The pragmatic driver doesn't spend money wildly, apparently living modestly and with his only major expense being his airplane.

He likely has enough money that he can retire and never work again in his life. He can remain in Missouri, out of a spotlight that in some ways he has shunned.

He doesn't do social media. His family doesn't make appearances with him. He can truly "spend more time with the family" if that is what this decision was about.

What more does Edwards have to accomplish? He never won a Cup title and never won a Daytona 500, but he has 28 career Cup wins. And let's face it, these days, winning a Daytona 500 or a championship is as much about talent as it is about capitalizing on certain moments. Certainly they are huge triumphs and in many ways the ultimate in racing, but Edwards will be able to sleep at night knowing he was one of the sport's greats for more than a decade.

He can step away now and still have his health. He doesn't have to spend energy trying to navigate the politics while also racing.

Although his departure will have an immediate impact on JGR, it actually could alleviate a logjam of drivers vying for the four Cup spots. Daniel Suarez, who appears at least nominally ready for a Cup ride after winning the Xfinity Series title in 2016, is expected to step into the No. 19 car in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Erik Jones has been farmed out to Furniture Row Racing, and he is expected to return to JGR for 2018 or 2019. The question was, if he came back, who would be out?

Denny Hamlin, according to a source, has signed a contract extension. Kyle Busch is not ready to retire. That leaves Matt Kenseth, who indicated the contract extension he signed that went into effect this year was for multiple seasons.

Now Suarez, who helped bring the Arris sponsorship to JGR, makes the jump, albeit a year or two early, into the JGR Cup program. If Edwards hadn't left, it is likely JGR would have needed to find a new sponsor for Edwards when Arris wanted to go Cup racing with Suarez.

Now Jones can come over whenever Kenseth hangs it up, allowing JGR and Toyota to keep two drivers (Jones and Suarez) they desperately wanted to keep.

Suarez won't be as good as Edwards right from the start, but JGR still has three legitimate championship contenders. That is enough, and Suarez replacing Edwards might even create a better team dynamic with them not all battling for the title.

Edwards? He'll be missed by his fans. And whatever he says Wednesday, fans likely will continue wondering exactly why he did it.

Just like pretty much everything he has done in his racing career.