It’s finally here. Sunday’s Daytona 500 begins another 36-race NASCAR odyssey, the second with Monster Energy as primary sponsor. The energy drink stepped up to back the sport after Sprint bailed on their deal following the 2016 season.
Alex Bowman, casually dressed in jeans and a gray T-shirt, apologizes for running a few minutes late to an appointment at the Hendrick Motorsports shop where Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolets are housed and worked on daily.
But all is quiet at the nearly deserted building on this November afternoon. Most Hendrick employees are nearly 800 miles away in Homestead, Fla., where Dale Earnhardt Jr. is embarking on his final race weekend as a driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
The retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award for the 15th consecutive year in 2017, leaves a void. The sport as a whole will miss the man whose legions of fans long ago rose up as one Junior Nation.
Earnhardt easily was the most recognizable face and name in NASCAR for the last decade and a half. He will continue to be involved in the sport as a co-owner of JR Motorsports, which fields XFINITY Series teams, and as a race analyst in the NBC booth.
The torch has been passed, from one son of a Hall of Famer to another. With the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott is poised to assume the role of fan favorite. In two years at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup level, Elliott, the son of Hall of Famer Bill, has already built an impressive fan following. His popularity is expected only to grow as Dale Jr. fans look for a driver to latch on to.
Jimmie Johnson’s racing career began on two wheels, as he whipped BMX bikes and motorcycles across tracks in Southern California. After he became a superstar on four wheels, he returned to two wheels as an amateur triathlete. And now he has helped initiate a bicycling fad among NASCAR drivers. Seemingly every week, a handful of drivers tour the area around the track.
Dale Jr. won’t be racing cars anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s slowing down. The 43-year-old and his wife, Amy, are expecting their first child. The father-to-be announced the good news by posting a picture of pink baby shoes on Instagram in October. He will also be joining NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage in July 2018. The 14-time Cup Series Most Popular Driver plans to take a crash course in announcing.
We’ve seen plenty of sports deal with the fallout from athlete retirements. The NBA struggled after losing Michael Jordan and golf has seen interest wane with Tiger Woods on the sidelines. But all those moments pale with the changing of the guard we’re seeing in NASCAR.