CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Carl Edwards says he never expected to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame so when the announcement came down a week ago, he was unreachable for hours until his wife encouraged him to check his phone.

He was shocked to learn that he was joining Ricky Rudd as the 2025 inductees. Nine days later, he said remains overwhelmed by the recognition; Edwards said he left a Bass Pro Shops in Missouri early Thursday and was greeted by a fan congratulating him.

Edwards won 28 races over 13 Cup Series seasons, another 38 races in the Xfinity Series and six Truck Series races. He won one Xfinity title and finished second four other times.

The only thing missing from his resume is a Cup title, which is a bit of a hot-button topic.

Edwards twice finished second in the standings and lost the 2011 title to Tony Stewart on a tie-breaker but it is the 2016 NASCAR finale that will forever be a sore spot.

Edwards was in control of the winner-take-all race at Homestead-Miami Speedway until a questionable caution was called with four laps remaining. It set up a late two-lap sprint to the finish and Edwards wrecked on the restart racing Joey Logano for the win.

Less than two months later, he abruptly retired at 36 and essentially vanished. His first big appearance was a year ago at Darlington Raceway, where Edwards showed up to be honored as one of the top 75 drivers in NASCAR history.

In his first comments since he was elected to the Hall of Fame last week, Edwards said at the time of the 2016 finale he was struggling balancing his job with his life as a married father of two. Those who know him well said he was left bitter by a caution that cost him the title and it was the reason he walked away.

“Definitely, I would have rather not have had a caution come out,” Edwards said Thursday. “But, you never know the outcome of that and like I’ve said, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Edwards then paused to collect his thoughts.

“I think things would have been a lot different if we won that championship,” he said.

REFLECTING ON THE PAST

Eight years later, Edwards has accepted the outcome and how NASCAR officiated the race.

“NASCAR is in the business of creating a sport for the fans,” Edwards said. “And I know from private conversations I have had that NASCAR is trying their best, and I respect that. The outcome at various points of my career, and that race specifically, I did not like it. But I 100% respect the sport and the people that run it. It gave me a life and opportunities that I never could have imagined.”

He insisted the outcome of that race did not lead to his retirement.

“As far as being an impetus for my stepping away, I’ll go right back to what I said when I did, and I said it clearly, but maybe not clearly enough: I just needed time,” Edwards said. “I woke up and I realized, at the end of my career, I’m not spending time doing anything other than racing.”

During the Hall of Fame voting session, one Edwards supporter argued that he had been robbed of a championship by a bogus caution. The 2011 championship he lost to Stewart wasn’t mentioned, though that was also questionable: Edwards drove a Ford at the time and Stewart drove a Chevrolet and there came a time in the race when it appeared the Chevys, which far outnumbered the Fords in the field, were moving out of Stewart’s way to allow him to beat Edwards for the title.

Asked by The Associated Press on Thursday if he felt wronged or cheated in 2016, Edwards carefully chose his words.

“I would just like to say that I officially respect the way NASCAR runs the sport in the way they need to run it. I don’t want to say anything negative,” he said. But he then added, “I may have been unclear, and I want to be explicit, that I did not leave the sport because of the way 2016 ended. Period.”

LIFE AFTER RACING

Now 44 and living in his home state of Missouri, Edwards focuses on being a father and a husband to his physician wife. He said he has no plans to ever race a Cup car again.

“I respect too much what it takes to be great,” Edwards said. “I lived that life every day for 20 years and my idea of fun isn’t doing something just to do it. I want to be great at something and it would be disrespectful to everyone that is striving to be great to go do it just for fun.”

He said he fills his competitive nature with adventure — he sailed from Florida to Italy as the boat’s captain — and has taken up jujitsu. He’s also a pilot.

Edwards has also involved himself in community work and has popped up in Missouri news segments helping out after tornado strikes. He is mentioned as a potential Republican candidate for public office, something he didn’t rule out Thursday.

“There’s no place on earth or in time where a guy can do what me and all of us have gotten to do other than the United States of America. The longer I live, the more I have realized this is not the norm,” Edwards said. “We have to protect this. So when politics come up, it comes from a place inside of me that cares so much about how great this country is. Some day, probably after my kids are grown up, if I can participate in that more, I want to.

“And so that conversation, that opportunity and that possibility, is always on the table.”

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing