Carl Edwards looks at the scoring pylon during NASCAR Sprint Cup practice for the Brickyard 400 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Saturday, July 28, 2012. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Taken aback by speculation that his crew chief change was made largely because of the No. 99 team's disappointing performance this season, Carl Edwards spent a good portion of a 20-minute interview session explaining that former crew chief Bob Osborne really is dealing with significant health issues.
Then Edwards was interrupted by some good-natured -- but still fairly sharp -- heckling from fellow driver Clint Bowyer, who was sitting nearby.
"Hey, Carl! How many different ways can you explain why you fired somebody?" Bowyer yelled.
A day before his first race with new crew chief Chad Norris, Edwards went out of his way to say that team owner Jack Roush made the change last week because of Osborne's ongoing health issues -- and not because the team goes into today's Brickyard 400 ranked 11th in the Sprint Cup points standings.
"I can't overstate enough that Bob is a very, very dedicated guy to our sport and he is going through something right now that would be tough for anyone," Edwards said. "And for him to have done what he has done at this level and to have kept it quiet, he is just a tough, tough man. He is a good friend of mine, so I am really thinking a lot of him."
Osborne remains with the team in a management role. But Edwards said Osborne could return as his crew chief once his health issues, which the team has not disclosed, are resolved.
"What we are trying to do right now is make the team better and fix any issues we might have, which we don't even know exactly what the issues are," Edwards said. "If we don't do any better here and Bob is up to it, we will probably put Bob right back in as soon as he is able. If this goes well and Bob is doing well in his new role and that is the best thing for him and Chad is doing great, then we will move forward with that. Nothing is in stone right now. It could be a whole difference scenario next week and we all know that. We are doing everything we can right now to be as good as we can right now."
For now, Edwards is working on establishing a relationship with Norris.
They're off to a good start, as Edwards was second in qualifying on Saturday.
"I think with the structure at Roush and the way we have done things, I don't expect to miss a beat with Chad here," Edwards said. "We talked a lot here this last week and even through the off weekend and I don't think that there is really much of a learning curve."
Edwards did acknowledge that the relationship will be different. Osborne has an engineering background, while Norris is more of a traditional crew chief who will rely on the team's engineers for information.
"(Osborne) is an engineer and he stands on his own two feet and does what he thinks is right and that has given us a huge amount of success," Edwards said. "Chad appears to be -- and I don't know him really well yet -- (but) the structure seems to be a little different where it will be a standard crew chief-driver combination where he will rely on the engineers more than Bob did because he doesn't have the same engineering background. And I think there will be times where that is better and times where that is worse. I think we will just have to see."
If things don't get fixed quickly, Edwards knows he is in danger of missing out on NASCAR's season-ending Chase after losing the title to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker last season.
"Chad and I agreed we are putting our feelings aside," Edwards said. "We are going to tell each other everything. If I don't like something he is doing, I am going to tell him, and if I am doing something he doesn't like he is going to tell me. We are going to race hard, communicate and it doesn't matter. If we like each other, great. If we yell at each other, it doesn't matter. We are going to try to be fast. It seems to be going well so far."
Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said the move could jolt the No. 99 team's performance.
"It's tough, but they are at a point and time where they have to do something different," Jimmie Johnson said. "I'd imagine that from the final few laps at Homestead until now has been the toughest part. Now they've probably turned the page and moving forward with the decisions they've made. I would assume it brings a little bit of new life and excitement to the program."
Johnson isn't exactly an expert on going through crew chief changes, given his longstanding partnership with Chad Knaus, but he imagines that Edwards won't spend much time looking backward.
"If I was Carl, it's time to look forward," Johnson said. "We've turned the page, we've made the decision, and he had a short period of time to get stuff done for this year. The window is closing. Knowing Carl, he's a strong race car driver, strong-minded good leader, and all the qualities to make the best of this situation he naturally has. Time will tell what really happens, but they've got to get going and they've clearly made the decisions to do that."