Carl Edwards, Satisfied and Still Healthy, Steps Away From Nascar

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Carl Edwards does not want to use the R-word. Not yet, at least.

Instead, Edwards, 37, told a crowd of reporters and Nascar officials on Wednesday that he was “stepping away” — not retiring — from full-time driving in the sport’s premier series.

The shocking announcement, news of which had leaked on Tuesday, came on the heels of one of Edwards’s finest seasons. He was among four drivers vying for the Sprint Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

Edwards was leading all championship contenders with 10 laps remaining in the season finale, but on a late restart, he tried to block an attempt by Joey Logano to take the lead, causing a crash that ended Edwards’s bid for his first Cup. Afterward, Edwards went to Logano’s pit box to wish the team good luck, and he was lauded for his sportsmanship. Jimmie Johnson went on to win the race and the championship.

When he stepped onto a stage Wednesday, Edwards appeared nervous, pacing with a hand-held microphone before finally settling in.

“I think it’s the right thing to do, as confusing as this whole thing might be,” Edwards said. “This might not make sense to people.”

He cited three reasons for his decision: He is satisfied with his accomplishments; he wants to devote time to his family and his passions outside racing; and he wants to stop while he is still healthy.

“For those three reasons, I can’t come up with a good reason for why now isn’t a good time,” Edwards said.

The Mexican driver Daniel Suarez, who last season became the first foreign-born racer to win a Nascar national series when he claimed the title in the lower-level Xfinity Series, will replace Edwards for Joe Gibbs Racing this year in the Cup series, now named after the sponsor Monster Energy. The season begins next month with the Daytona 500.

Edwards is among a handful of high-profile drivers to walk away from motorsports in the past two years. Jeff Gordon retired from full-time Nascar competition at the end of 2015, only to return briefly last season to replace the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tony Stewart’s final Cup series race was last season.

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In Formula One, Nico Rosberg retired in December at 31 — five days after winning the series championship.

Gibbs, the eponymous team owner, first learned of Edwards’s decision shortly before Christmas and was shocked, he said.

“You normally have to tell an athlete, ‘Hey, it’s over,’” Gibbs, a former N.F.L. coach, said. “They’re going to argue with you.”

He added of Edwards: “I think he’s a rare person, and him choosing this, that’s why everybody’s going, ‘There’s got to be something behind this.’ But in this case, I don’t think there’s anything there.”

Gibbs compared Edwards’s sudden decision to the retirement of Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, who abruptly walked away from football in 1999 and announced it by sending a fax to his hometown newspaper, The Wichita Eagle.

Like Sanders, Edwards is guarded about his personal life; he and his wife, Kate, have two young children whom he consistently declines to discuss in interviews. He chooses to live in Missouri, his home state, rather than migrate to North Carolina as most Nascar drivers do.

Edwards is famous for performing back flips off his car after winning races, and he has executed 28 such celebrations in 445 starts. He won the lower-level Nascar series (then named the Busch Series, after the sponsor) in 2007 and spent 13 years driving in the Cup series. In 2011, he finished second in the Cup series standings, with Stewart winning the title on a tiebreaker.

Edwards maintained that he had no firm plans for what comes next. “There’s no life raft I’m jumping onto,” he said. “I’m just jumping.”

But he expects to continue to be involved with Joe Gibbs Racing, he said, and plans to attend a test session in Phoenix to provide guidance and advice to the 25-year-old Suarez.

Edwards remained affable and self-deprecating throughout his news conference, becoming emotional only when a reporter asked about his “Midwestern values” and his status as a role model. He turned away as camera shutters clicked and then stepped back to the microphone and said, with a lip quivering, “I just want to be a good person.”

Still, he was not ready to call this a retirement.

“I hope you’ll accept that I just don’t really have all that figured out yet,” Edwards said. “To me, that’s O.K. I’m at peace with that. I know if you lay out those three reasons, it adds up. Life’s short. You’ve got to do what your gut tells you. I have a feeling I’ll find something.”