All he had to do was finish. But when misfortune struck, he chose instead to finish with class.

Last November, Carl Edwards was one of just four drivers with a chance to win the NASCAR championship in the final race of the season. With 10 laps to go, he was ahead of his rivals. If he had remained ahead after the final restart, the title was almost surely his. But when fellow contender Joey Logano tried to pass him on the restart, Edwards moved to block. The result was a crash that ended Edwards’ day and his chance at the title.

The wreck marked the third close call for Edwards in his quest for a season crown. He won the final race of the 2008 season but finished second overall to Jimmie Johnson and lost the championship in 2011 to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker. “So you can imagine how important that was to him,” team owner Joe Gibbs says.

Instead of heading directly to the track’s medical center, though, Edwards climbed into Logano’s pit box and approached crew chief Todd Gordon. “When Carl walked up there, we thought he was going to give them a piece of his mind or physically get after it,” Gibbs says. Gordon admits, “It was a little intimidating,” until Edwards stuck out his hand for Gordon to shake and said, “’I just want to say I appreciate the hard racing, and do what you can to keep it up.’ A class act to own his part of the situation and encourage us to keep doing our thing.”

“I think all of us were taken aback,” Gibbs says. “I don’t think I could have done it.” They were taken even more aback two months later, when Edwards announced his retirement from racing at age 37, saying that he was satisfied with his accomplishments and that he wanted to devote time to his family and other passions.

But, then, Edwards has always done things his own way. A native of Columbia, Mo., he started racing as a 15-year-old, using a fake ID, and mailed business cards to car owners across the country, looking for a ride. “Think about a guy that came into the sport that wasn’t given anything,” Gibbs says, “Had to earn it and worked his way to the top of the Cup field.” He reached the top because of 445 career starts in NASCAR’s elite series, 28 victories, 124 top-5 finishes and 220 top-10 finishes.

Rather than move to NASCAR’s hub in Charlotte, N.C., like other drivers, Edwards continued to call Columbia home, flying himself to and from tracks across the country and meetings with the Gibbs team in Charlotte. Though retired from racing, he continues to fly. He recently piloted his personal jet to New York to bring home Rhyan Loos, a young resident of Columbia undergoing cancer treatment there, so she could attend the first day of school. “When I think of sportsmanship, I don’t think of someone coming up and saying, ‘Good race,’” Logano says, but of “a true test of their character in high-pressure moments and how they handle situations – not just on the race track but how they handle themselves in life. I think Carl’s a great role model for myself and for kids growing up.”

“This is the neatest event I have ever attended.” Carl Edwards