CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carl Edwards is no longer NASCAR's points leader, his 10-week streak at the top snapped by an early accident at Daytona International Speedway.
The 37th-place finish Saturday night wasn't his fault, and Edwards and his Roush Fenway Racing team earned a ton of respect by gutting it out through several rounds of repairs and a stretch in which it grew so hot in the car, Edwards was begging his crew to douse his cockpit with water.
"We don't ever give up and that's the thing. I told my guys to keep their heads up," he said after the race. "We'll take this bad day and keep our pride. In the big picture, it doesn't mean much, but there is a lot of pride in leading those points, so we'll try to get that points lead back."
Then Edwards talked of strategy, lessons learned and motivation. What he didn't discuss was his future.
Edwards is the biggest free agent in this year's class, and he's been determined to not let his contract negotiations play out in public. If he could, he said two weeks ago, he'd wait until the end of the season to figure out his 2012 plans because dealing with it now doesn't appear to be high on his list of priorities.
But waiting isn't possible, not when Edwards represents the largest piece of the free agent puzzle.
Far too much depends on his decision, particularly at RFR, the team that gave the substitute teacher from Columbia a full-time Trucks Series ride back in 2003. He was 23 years old, trying to claw his way into a decent NASCAR job, when Jack Roush gave Edwards the life-changing chance.
He was in the Cup series 23 races into the next season as a replacement for Jeff Burton, a longtime Roush man who left midseason for a fresh start elsewhere. Edwards pumped some life into a team stuck in a nearly three-year winless streak with three top-10s in his first four starts, and he was a bonafide star by his 17th career Cup start, when he landed his first celebratory backflip following his breakthrough win at Atlanta.
Here we are now, seven years and 19 wins later, waiting for Edwards' second major contract negotiation. He took all the calls from team owners the last time around, but landed right back with Roush, with an expensive extension that made him one of NASCAR's highest paid drivers.
Now Edwards is apparently again listening to outside offers, and that apparently includes a pretty lucrative one from Joe Gibbs Racing. The team has room to add a fourth car, or could use Edwards to replace Joey Logano and help longtime sponsor Home Depot feel like it can compete with rival Lowe's string of five consecutive championships with Jimmie Johnson.
Denny Hamlin, who nearly knocked off Johnson last season, thinks Edwards would be a very nice fit at JGR. But unlike previous years, when Hamlin said he was used in a failed recruiting effort of Dale Earnhardt Jr., he's not been asked to reach out to Edwards.
"I hear what everybody is saying, but nobody has said anything to me that I'd consider to be a strong indication," Hamlin said. "In the past, they'd asked me to talk to Junior, or another driver they wanted to sign, but there's been nothing at all on Edwards. Nobody has said a word to me or asked me to do anything."
That doesn't mean that JGR doesn't want Edwards, but team president J.D. Gibbs learned everything from his dad, the former Washington Redskins coach, and both men tend to guard their words as if the Dallas Cowboys themselves might use everything against them.
With everyone so silent, it's turned Edwards' looming decision into one big guessing game. Only the time has probably come for these talks to get serious and for Edwards to settle on something before it sabotages his season.
But for all the outsiders looking in, there really doesn't seem to be much of a decision at all.
Edwards has gone through all the highs and lows with RFR, including a nine-win 2008 season that saw him go down to the wire with Johnson, and the winless season that immediately followed. He's also won a Nationwide title, the second-tier series where he's a 33-time winner.
Now he finds himself in the middle of what could very well be a run to his first Cup title. RFR has made substantial improvements, its Roush Yates engines are among the best in the series, and manufacturer Ford, to which Edwards' is closely tied, is on solid financial footing.
From a competition standpoint, Edwards has absolutely no reason at all to leave Roush.
Unless money is the only thing Edwards is after.
Nobody is suggesting money isn't always a factor, and Edwards, who has celebrated the birth of two children in the last 15 months, has every right to be trying to shore up his financial future. It could very well be that JGR, which is partnered with Toyota and has room to grow, has a few more dollars to offer.
Roush, on the other hand, is facing some sponsorship difficulties: Of its four cars, only Greg Biffle has a primary sponsor signed for 2012. Crown Royal made the surprising decision to leave Matt Kenseth last week, UPS is up at the end of the year with Saturday night winner David Ragan, and Aflac hasn't said what it will do next year with or without Edwards.
That doesn't mean the wheels are about to fall off at RFR, or that the organization has given Edwards any indication to leave. In fact, it's quite the contrary: The team has weathered every downturn to date and yet Edwards still finds himself a championship contender.
That would change, regardless of what Edwards believes, if he doesn't make a decision, soon, to stay put.