HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It’s about 1,600 feet, give or take, from Turn 1 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to the track’s infield care center. At 6:15 p.m on Sunday night, Carl Edwards climbed from the wreckage of his car, his championship hopes in ruins, and took the first steps of that long walk. Edwards’ walk began in disappointment, but ended up being one of the finer displays of sportsmanship in recent memory.
Edwards had been on track to win his first Sprint Cup championship, five years to the day after losing the closest season-long finish in NASCAR history. He’d led his three Chase challengers, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, and Jimmie Johnson, for virtually the entire race. And he’d just won one of the great head-to-head in-race duels in recent NASCAR history, putting Busch in the rear-view and setting himself up for a nine-lap sprint to glory.
It didn’t work out that way.
On a restart, Edwards blocked Logano but got turned into the far end of the inside of Turn 1. Edwards then pinballed up the track, hitting Regan Smith and then the Turn 1 wall. As Edwards’ orange No. 19 disintegrated, a groan of sympathy audible even over engines rolled through the crowd of 46,000.
Up in Edwards’ pit box, team members put their hands on their heads, or buried their faces in their hands. His crew, which had been so flawless all afternoon long, dropped their heads, slumped their shoulders, and began the sad task of packing up their equipment before the race was done.
Edwards, meanwhile, waved off a NASCAR official’s request to get into an ambulance. Standard procedure in NASCAR races is for drivers involved in any wreck to visit the infield care center for a checkup, but there’s no rule that says the driver must ride there. So Edwards walked, and he spent the time deep in thought.
“I had a lot of thoughts on that walk,” Edwards told Yahoo Sports, and then paused for a long time. “It’s hard to … you put so much into this, and so many people push so hard. You don’t get opportunities like this often. I hope quickly I can get over the frustration and look at this for what it is. It was a whole lot of fun, right until the end.”
Though he wouldn’t have framed it this way, Edwards was at a crossroads here. He had just seen his championship hopes obliterated almost within sight of the finish line. He had options. There was precedent. He could have slung his helmet or cursed out Logano. He could have stormed off without a word, or he could have gone on television and scorched the earth. His fellow drivers in similar situations have done all of these, and more.
But Edwards took a different approach. Head held high, he walked straight to Logano’s pit box, climbed the stairs, and shook the hand of Logano’s crew chief Todd Gordon. “I wanted to make sure they knew that was just racing in my opinion, just hard racing,” Edwards said later.
“Go get this thing,” Edwards told Gordon, and even though Logano didn’t get the thing — Jimmie Johnson did — the thought wasn’t lost on Logano. “It’s really cool that he said that,” Logano said after the race. “He’s a stand-up guy. Carl’s a good person.”
Edwards then cut through the crowd and ducked away from the track, through the now-empty Xfinity Series garage, then walked up an access road toward the infield care center, trailed the entire way by a camera crew. A few steps from the care center, his wife embraced him and walked by his side as he went in for the perfunctory checkup before taking questions from a dozen media outlets.
“He doesn’t have a whole lot of experience losing, because he hasn’t had many losses,” Edwards’ mother, Nancy Sterling, told Yahoo Sports. “He’ll move on from this and he’ll be all right. That’s the kind of man he is.”
As the media scrum dispersed — there was still racing left to run, and Edwards had no more role in it — Edwards walked over to a small circle of his family and friends, shrugged as if to say, “We did our best,” and slapped high-fives with each one.
And then, again, Edwards faced a choice. He could have bolted to his RV or his private plane, could have turned his back on Homestead and started the process of putting this dream-turned-nightmare behind him. Instead, Edwards walked back toward the garage, back toward the charred ruins of his car. He spoke with team officials, looking over every inch of the ruined No. 19 Arris Toyota. And then he walked over to his pit crew, shaking the hand of every man who’d gone over the wall for him all season long.
“I was so proud of my guys, so proud of our performance,” Edwards said. “It didn’t yield a championship, but I have a lot of pride … I wish it didn’t end like that. My guys deserve better than that.”
We don’t want to go overboard with this, because the word “class” is now less a description and more of a crowbar, a way to hammer players who fail to meet some ever-shifting definition of what constitutes “class.” Still, in a time where even leaders dismiss and demonize their opponents, gloating in victory and throwing tantrums in defeat, Edwards is a throwback: a guy who wins with, yes, class, and loses with even more class.
As he was making his final pass through the garage, Edwards accepted the congratulations and handshakes of dozens of people, from other teams to NASCAR officials, and a few fans even screwed up the courage to approach him. “Could you sign this?” said one, with a bit more enthusiasm than tact. Edwards would have been perfectly within his rights to blow her off with a “not now.” Wouldn’t you?
Instead, he motioned her over with a genial “Sure. Come here.” He signed a photo of himself, but when he handed the fan’s Sharpie back to her, she dropped it, and immediately gasped out a “Sorry!”
And Carl Edwards, who’d just seen his life’s dream pile into a wall, knelt down and picked up the pen for her. “No problem at all,” he smiled.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.