Carl Edwards Welcomed Into Texas Hall of Fame

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 9 2018

Carl Edwards was back at Texas Motor Speedway this week but not to drive a race car. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – He wasn’t packing a helmet and he declined several requests to reprise his signature back flip off a stage. With that, retired NASCAR star Carl Edwards celebrated his induction into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame as 2017 classmate to popular IndyCar Series driver Helio Castroneves.

Edwards and Castroneves became the 20th and 21st members of the TMHOF since the inaugural class in 2003 during induction ceremonies at The Speedway Club’s Grand Ballroom during the busy AAA Texas 500 NASCAR Playoff tripleheader last weekend.

Edwards shocked NASCAR Nation when he unexpectedly announced his retirement from big-time stock car racing in January 2017. But the man who punctuated five of his six Cup victories at TMS with a back flip off the door of his race car was cheered as he entered the ballroom.

“I didn’t expect that at all. I knew people would come for Helio, but I didn’t know…I just didn’t know,” said Edwards, a 39-year-old native of Columbia, Mo. “And then to have people here wearing Carl Edwards gear _ I didn’t expect that.”

Edwards made 24 NASCAR Cup Series starts at TMS from 2005 to 2016 and led 691 total laps around the 1.5-mile oval. Edwards, who rose to prominence driving Fords for Jack Roush at Roush Fenway Racing, exited the sport and the No. 19 Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Coach gave me an opportunity to step away when it was best for me, and that’s a gift I can never say enough about,” said Edwards, thanking Gibbs, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Everyone has to make decisions in their life and I feel really fortunate to have people around me that facilitated my decision-making. Helped me think through things. For me, it was a really simple decision. If I didn’t care about money and I didn’t care what anyone else thought, what would I do? And the answer was really simple. I’d like to just step away for a while and focus on other things. And that’s as simple as it is.

“The more I’m away from the sport there’s two things that are clear that I miss _ I definitely miss driving the car. Just sliding a car sideways is a blast. And I miss the people. I have a feeling that something will come up that will be really fun and natural to do and I’ll get to drive a little more. But I’m not going to sign a three-year contract to go run for a Cup championship or something like that. Not right now.”

Edwards wasted little time finding his way to Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway, winning the Dickies 500 in just his second career start in what now is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in November 2005. Three years later, he became the first driver to sweep both Cup races in the same weekend at TMS, taking April’s Samsung 500 and November’s Dickies 500. And on Nov. 6, 2016 _ exactly 11 years after his first victory at TMS _ Edwards scored what turned out to be the final win of his Cup career in the rain-shortened AAA Texas 500. Inclement weather prevented Edwards from performing his celebratory back flip.

“I didn’t mind that at all,” Edwards joked. “For me, the whole mission in racing was two-fold. I wanted just to get people to let me drive their cars _ that was a big deal _ and to believe people would pay you to drive their cars. And then to think you could win a championship at the highest level, that’s what it was all about.”

Edwards also was a two-time winner at TMS in what now is the Xfinity Series, claiming the O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge in November 2010 and the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 in April 2011.

A fitness aficionado, Edwards has become a gentleman sailor, fervent bicycle rider and overall worldwide traveler over the past two years. “I’ve traveled a ton and that’s been really neat,” Edwards said. “There’s a lot of places I really want to see and people I’d like to meet. Those trips are really great for me because they remind me of just the adventure of things. And then to be able to spend time at home and basically be the friend and family member I just wasn’t able to be because I was gone all the time. It’s been a really great two years; I’ve had a lot of fun.”

Edwards said he has had no trouble dismissing “Silly Season” rumors about a possible fulltime return to the Cup grind. Edwards said he has had “a couple conversations with people” about racing again, but none in the last year or so.

“I think everyone pretty much understands I’m not interested in coming back and doing anything too serious right now. It’s been off my radar for a long time,” Edwards said. “I feel like every day is a chance for you go to out and try to learn more about yourself, and see things in a different way. So for me this has been a huge change.

“It was very odd for the first year because I’d run into people and they’d say, ‘You’re Carl Edwards! How’s your season going?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not racing anymore.’ So it was very odd, but now I basically feel kind of like I did before I raced and it’s neat. Like I said, a great time to focus on my friends and my family and it’s good.”

The closest Edwards came to winning a Cup championship was in 2011 for car-owner Jack Roush. Edwards finished the season in a points deadlock with Tony Stewart, but lost the title on a tiebreaker decided by wins _ five for “Smoke” to one for “Cousin Carl.” In what proved to be the final start of his Cup career, Edwards’ bid for the 2016 championship ended when he was hooked by title rival Joey Logano on a restart with 10 laps to go at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Edwards said those near-misses _ most notably the 2016 finale _ do not haunt him. “There’s one simple fact and that is you can’t go back and change anything, that’s the way it is,” Edwards said. “Yes, I would love to be a two or three-time champion, I mean that’s what we work for. I think it’s not just time (that heals), I think it’s more life…the more I live, the more I see the real gift of racing to me was the day-in, day-out effort and the teamwork and the learning. I went from a guy…I was a much different person at the end of my career than I was at the beginning of my career and I feel like I was better. And I feel like racing made me that way.

“To me, it’s not about winning _ that’s not where most of it is. That’s the fun part, yes. But it’s the growth and I wouldn’t change that Homestead race for anything. I mean, yeah, didn’t turn out great but that was the best I had performed in a race car, the best team I ever had and it was neat. Winning is what we do, and never understate how important winning is. But the rest of it is the meat of it, the great part about competition and about racing. If things had gone a little differently any number of years I’d have a championship next to my name, maybe. But heck, I wouldn’t trade any of it. Pretty good ride.”

Edwards said he has made only two visits to a NASCAR racetrack since his retirement _ to the road-course in Sonoma, Calif., and to “The Great American Speedway” in North Texas. “I’ve always gone to the racetrack to look for something to drive or to race, so it’s hard for me to just go and watch. I like to race,” Edwards said. “I don’t follow it really, because if I’m so invested in it and it’s been so close to me I don’t think I can follow it without wanting to participate. It would be impossible for me. I try not to pay too much attention is the best way I can put it. I end up having all the same conversations, but if I’m going to follow it every week I might as well drive.

“You know what I miss? I miss the challenge and it took me to the end of my career to figure this out. My competitors, even though you hate each other and you’re at each other’s throats, those are the people that actually drive you to do your best. And I miss the meetings where you’re arguing with your teammate about something…that kind of adrenaline or excitement or challenge. That’s the cool thing about races, you get to go battle every week. That’s something I miss. Just even the parts when you’re frustrated with people…you’re invested and it matters, and I didn’t realize it was fun at the time.”

Edwards gave a shout-out to Castroneves, winningest open-wheel driver in TMS history. Seated in the audience was Fort Worth’s Johnny Rutherford, a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion. Rutherford and Houston’s A.J. Foyt Jr., first four-time winner of the Indy 500, comprised the TMHOF’s first class in 2003.

Castroneves, whose INDYCAR tenure with Team Penske ended after the 2017 season, owns TMS records for most wins (4), top-10s (15), top-fives (11) and laps-led (506) over the course of a record 20 career starts.  Each of those victories was punctuated by his trademark front stretch fence-climb, a tradition that began after his first Indy car win at The Raceway at Belle Isle Park in Detroit in 2000 and prompted his “Spider Man” nickname. Castroneves also recorded one pole position around TMS’ 1.5-mile oval.

Two years after a dramatic finish in the Chevy 500k in September 2002 as runnerup to Sam Hornish Jr. of Panther Racing by 0.0096-seconds _ the second-closest finish in TMS history _ Castroneves found his way into TMS’ Victory Lane in October 2004. Starting on pole, Castroneves led 104 laps and survived a late race charge from fellow-Brazilian Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing to win the Chevy 500k.

Castroneves became a multiple winner in Cowtown with a victory over Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing in the Bombardier Learjet 500k in June 2006. Castroneves joined Hornish as TMS’ only three-time winners with a victory over Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe in the Bombardier Learjet 550k June night race in 2009. Castroneves was crowned as INDYCAR’s winningest driver at TMS in June 2013. Helio dominated the Firestone 550 that summer night, leading 132 laps and finishing nearly five seconds ahead of runnerup Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport.

“Coming here today to see the Speedway, I said, ‘Man, I miss this place,’^” said Castroneves, a 43-year-old native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “This place suits me. I have great memories every time in Victory Circle. I’ve been racing with Team Penske for a long time and you know the equipment is going to be safe and you can trust your car. I miss the (open-wheel) environment _ but I’m not retired. I’m still driving.”

Castroneves moved to Penske’s sports car organization for the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship after 18 successful open-wheel seasons, driving an Acura ARX-05 Prototype with Ricky Taylor. While committed to sports car racing, Castroneves will renew his quest for a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 win in next May’s 103rd edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” with Team Penske at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Castroneves implored TMS President Eddie Gossage to help him convince team-owner Roger Penske to add June’s annual IndyCar Series night race at TMS to his abbreviated open-wheel schedule. “We got to start sending messages to RP,” Castroneves said. “I’ll never stop thanking the fans, whether it’s from racing or Dancing With the Stars. This is a phenomenal honor.”

Gossage _ who unsuccessfully tried to convince Edwards to join him in a back flip off the stage _instead presented each inductee with a TMHOF ring. “Eddie makes everything big,” said Edwards, alluding to the track’s Texas-themed Victory Lane celebrations. “It’s just so much fun. And the people make Texas great. I have not met a Texan that I don’t like. If I didn’t live in Missouri I’d live in Texas.”

The event marked the TMHOF’s first dual induction since native Texan Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion from Corpus Christi, and Speedway Motorsports Inc., founder O. Bruton Smith were recognized in 2008. It also was the Hall’s sixth dual induction overall.

Fittingly, Edwards was honored during the same ceremony as Gibbs, his last team-owner, who received the Bruton Smith Legend Award for his leadership of a championship-winning organization. With more than 300 combined wins in the Cup and Xfinity series, Gibbs has solidified himself as one of NASCAR’s most successful owners.

Cup title contender Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing was honored with the 2017 Racer of the Year Award after a pair of strong finishes in April and a drought-ending victory in the fall Cup race. Harvick scored the first Cup Series victory of his career in Fort Worth during the ‘17 AAA Texas 500.

Current NASCAR Xfinity title contender Christopher Bell, a native of Norman, Okla., received the 2017 TMS Sportsmanship Award.

The Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame ceremony annually serves as a major fundraiser for Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas Chapter. SCC has invested over $10.6-million in the North Texas community to help children in need. In the 20-year existence of the local chapter, SCC has improved the lives of over 2.4-million children.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 9 2018
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