Among the most difficult decisions a NASCAR driver will face is recognizing when you’ve reached the end of your career.
It is seldom obvious, and often it becomes a long deliberation between your desire and your ability. Most drivers hang on as long as possible, hoping for either a next great opportunity or a rediscovery of an earlier self, driven by a passion to compete, a desire to win races — big races — perhaps even a championship.
Carl Edwards‘ approach to competing at NASCAR’s highest level has never been standard, or typical.
Nor was his departure.
It officially came Wednesday in what could be referred to as the seventh inning of our offseason, anything but a “convenient” time for his team and its affiliates.
But retiring from a sport shouldn’t be predicated on convenience; it should be predicated on criteria you establish during your career that ultimately constitute success. Only then can you step away from something and be willing to release it from your life. It was something you were once dominated by, but it no longer drives you.
I believe that Carl, in his own way, reached that point, and he suggested that to all of us when he referenced the three reasons that led to his decision.
He said he was satisfied with his career, needed to devote time to people important to him and was still healthy. All three reasons should make sense. Here’s why.
Drivers, or any people for that matter who are driven to a goal, must recognize the finish line before they begin the journey. I refer to it with my children as “charting your course.”
I did it when I began driving stock cars at 15. Most drivers can reflect on their careers and understand how they got where they did, and oftentimes without realizing it, or overthinking it, they did in fact create a road map of where they wanted to be and the moves they needed to make to get there.
For Carl, it wasn’t about a Cup title — that’s what he shared with us — and said he was satisfied with his career. He should be. It’s been remarkable, and none of you reading this should be surprised by what Carl said. Nobody I know entered their Cup career needing to be champion. No one!
Conversely, every one of my colleagues began their Cup career with the dream of winning a Cup race. All of them, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin … it dominates you, it’s what you worked your entire life for, to win at the highest level. Carl did it 28 times.
I admire how Carl put this into context for us. He said he loves to race cars and drive 190 mph into the turn sideways, and when he competed, he gave it all he had.
When Carl says he needs to spend time with people he cares about, that’s code for, “I’m tired of the grind, I’m a dad, and I don’t like calling home 150 to 200 nights a year to say goodnight to my children instead of walking them to their rooms.” And it’s code for, “I’ve made enough money that I’m no longer willing to make the sacrifices needed to pursue more wins or a title. I would rather redeem future earnings for quality of life.”
Carl Edwards is the only driver at the pinnacle of his career I can think of who has acted on these emotions, but I promise you he is not alone in having the emotions.
I’m confident in saying that any driver at the middle stages of his career or beyond has been preoccupied with this equation, perhaps dominated by the question, “When is it enough?” For most, it becomes the beginning of his slide south.
Carl answered that question, and abruptly! The time is now. I admire the courage it took to do this.
Which leads to the third, final and probably most important factor. Carl is walking away healthy, and he recognized that as being critical to his decision.
Every driver understands the risks associated with his profession. Every driver manages that risk differently. Your willingness to take risk behind the wheel of a race car directly correlates with the personality you possess as a competitor, and that personality often changes over time.
Naturally, as drivers age, and as they acquire wealth, become parents, the willingness to take risk subsides, at least somewhat.
You can still be effective, even successful, but your performance diminishes because of it.
There are small pockets of athletes who contradict this … Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and our own Jimmie Johnson … but what’s hidden in this equation is these athletes probably have been affected by diminishing skills and a greater risk, but they overcome it by contributing more, preparing harder, managing their lives better.
Carl is capable of doing this, but he is sending a clear message that he is no longer willing to. And that’s impressive, because most great athletes wade through a period of denial before they realize their best days are behind them.
Carl has never possessed a follow-the-herd mentality. He has from day one gone about his business with a mentality to study, comprehend and execute. It’s served him very well, and his retirement announcement seems to be consistent with everything we know about him.
Any of you who’ve followed me during my 11 years at ESPN know that I enjoy the expression “The Bottom Line.” It’s meaningful to me, so here is the bottom line to this whole discussion.
Carl Edwards is leaving on his terms. How many athletes experience that privilege?
This could change how other drivers view their longevity, but I’m certain it will change how owners view their longevity. Shorter contracts will prevail in this sport for drivers north of 35 as the companies can’t risk leveraging their future on drivers later in their careers. Other sports seem to have already adjusted to this.
Walking away from the sport always tests a driver emotionally, but it’s never obvious when that will happen. Carl will question his decision, if he hasn’t already. My experience is that moment will come for him when the cars roll off pit road to begin the 2017 Daytona 500.
It’s this point when a retired driver first acknowledges the gut check of the sport moving forward with or without you. How well you manage these effects will determine your path forward.
My guess is this: I believe we’ll see Carl back in a race car at some point in 2017 or we’ll never see him in one again.
Nothing about this man is halfway — he is among the most determined, analytical, laser-focused people I know. He will either be all in or all out.
In my heart of hearts I believe it is the latter, but I hedge. I hedge that bet because Carl has not been your typical or traditional NASCAR driver, evidenced by the signature backflip he delivered as victory celebration and the code he applied to not only how he drove but also how he expected to be driven against.
Carl Edwards as a driver did not deviate throughout his career from the assertive, calculated precision that led to several victories, nor did he deviate from the scorn you received from him if, in his view, your racing crossed the line of what’s clean or dirty racing.
Carl has always been very matter-of-fact in his delivery, whether it’s behind the wheel or during an interview — he makes it clear where he stands.
What felt different to me Wednesday wasn’t his delivery or his sincerity. It was the fact that he refused to use the word “retire,” and that leaves me believing that the struggle has already begun.