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.
Stock car racing, already struggling to gain support from a new generation, absorbed another retirement TKO Friday. Danica Patrick’s announcement she’ll step back from full-time Cup competition, ending her career with May’s Indianapolis 500 is the latest in a slew of drivers stepping away from the sport.
Consider in just the past month, Matt Kenseth announced he’s leaving at age 45, unable to secure primary sponsorship with a top team. Kenseth is a Hall of Fame lock, winner of 39 races and the 2003 Cup Series championship. And yet I’d argue he’s not one of the five biggest drivers to leave the sport in just the past two years.
NASCAR has to absorb the loss of Patrick, the sport’s lone full-time female competitor. It’s losing Dale Earnhardt Jr. after this weekend, its Most Popular Driver and a link to a bygone era as the son of Dale Earnhardt Sr. Already retired are Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, a trio who had millions in endorsements, fans, and crossed over into the national sporting landscape.
Edwards was notable for his Subway ads plastered all over the country among other suitors; the fitness nut was a natural crossover into the entertainment world. Gordon was a former guest host on Regis & Kelly. Stewart’s outspoken nature, dirt track background, and outside endeavors (including owning Eldora Speedway) left him well known outside of racing.
Now, all those people are gone. Add in Greg Biffle, Brian Vickers and Bobby Labonte (who had scaled back to part-time) and the sport has a bona fide tidal wave on its hands. Patrick and Earnhardt alone constitute over four million followers in the Twittersphere. Can NASCAR give them a reason to stick around?
Plenty of people say the future is bright with Chase Elliott surging in popularity. Just 20 years old, Elliott does have an opportunity to be the next great driver. But his Twitter following (710,000) pales in comparison to what’s leaving the sport (Earnhardt has well over 2.3 million). Erik Jones, the likely Rookie of the Year, only has 51,800 followers. Those numbers aren’t the only signs of popularity but they’re also not good enough.
The sad part about Patrick and Kenseth, the two latest retirees, is that they wanted to continue in the sport. Sure, after months of limited options they finally came around to the idea of retirement. But Kenseth, whose veteran salary was too much for a top team to handle, couldn’t convince Toyota to foot the bill on his talent alone. Suddenly, at age 45 he’s washed up because a Fortune 500 company doesn’t see themselves branding around a middle-aged man.
Could you imagine if the Patriots kicked out Tom Brady because he didn’t have enough endorsements at age 40? That’s the harsh reality right now in which NASCAR lives.
And Patrick, for all her struggles in this sport, is the coup de grace. Everyone with a marketing degree in and around NASCAR tried so hard to put her in a racecar for 2018. But the right opportunity to run full-time just didn’t work out.
“I just think that sometimes in your life, I’m not feeling like I was pushed into this,” Patrick said. “I feel like I should be doing this. I feel like this is where my life should be headed. And sometimes, we just get kind of nudged there. But I definitely was faced with situations at the beginning of the year that I had never faced before. I had never had sponsor issues.
“It made me think about things and so I’m excited about the next phase.”
I don’t think NASCAR is quite so pumped. 2018 just became a whole lot harder sell to millions of fans wondering if they’re still going to follow the sport going forward.
Ford EcoBoost 400
Time: Sunday, Nov. 19 at 3 p.m. ET
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway (Homestead, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex, despite not winning inside the Round of 8, enters Homestead-Miami Speedway a heavy favorite to take home his first title. Earning career highs in wins (7), top-5 finishes (18), laps led (2,175), and average finish (9.7), he won the regular season title going away.
Six of Truex’s seven wins this season have come at 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead-Miami Speedway. Add in the head start he’s had on the season finale, playoff points making him virtually assured of making the Championship 4 for months, and anything less than the big trophy would be a huge disappointment.
Who’s at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
Johnson, who wrecked out at Phoenix, is in a downward spiral to end 2017. He’s earned just one top-5 finish during the NASCAR playoffs (third at Dover) while registering career lows in laps led (29), race wins (zero), and races led (two) during that span. Barring a miracle at Homestead, this season will register as the worst of the seven-time champion’s career. And did we mention that with Kenseth’s retirement, Johnson starts 2018 as the sport’s oldest full-time driver? Father Time has a way of sneaking up on all of us.
There are announcements galore regarding the 2018 season. Danica Patrick is the big one: she’ll run just the Daytona 500 next year in NASCAR, the Indianapolis 500 in May and then retire from racing altogether. Boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was on hand for an emotional announcement in which Patrick broke down in tears several times. Unlike Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is planning a media career with NBC, Patrick has no plans to transition to television at this time.
Chris Gayle will be the crew chief for the No. 20 Cup Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing next season. Gayle replaces Jason Ratcliff, who will move to the XFINITY Series while Erik Jones replaces Matt Kenseth in the Cup car.
Budweiser made a tribute video in honor of Earnhardt’s last race. It’s a poignant look back at how NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver has navigated his career over the last 20 years. Earnhardt is running a special tribute scheme this weekend in honor of his former No. 8 Budweiser car he drove from 2000-07 full-time.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Combined Twitter following of Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom are retiring from full-time competition after Sunday.
Career starts for Martin Truex Jr. without a Cup title to his name.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Truex. Truex. Truex. If you’re going to go with one of the Championship 4 contenders, you have to go with the favorite. Disregard Martin Truex Jr.’s 36th-place finish at Homestead in 2016. That was a different time, the No. 78 was not in title contention and they didn’t have the same intermediate track record as they do this year. It’s hard to imagine anyone standing in the way of Truex taking home the hardware other than perhaps Kyle Busch.
Out of starts for Truex? How about going with Denny Hamlin. Hamlin has the most wins of any active driver at Homestead (two) and a career average finish of 6.9 at the track. After the Phoenix contact with Chase Elliott, Hamlin’s No. 11 team will be looking to bounce back and finish off the season strong.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., despite blowing a motor, was sixth in Homestead during the first practice. The No. 88 team hasn’t been great here, and neither has its driver, registering just two top-10 finishes in 16 career starts. But do you want to bet against a guy running his final Cup race? That goes for Matt Kenseth, too.
I know it sounds crazy, pushing a guy who started his Homestead career with four straight DNFs. But Michael McDowell was a quiet 10th last year at this track and is finishing up a quality multi-year tenure with Leavine Family Racing. This race has a history, especially under the current format of late wrecks allowing underdogs to sneak up the list. McDowell is the type of driver who will survive that.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr., not surprisingly, has 9/4 odds to win the title while Kyle Busch sits second at 7/2.
What I Think
Truex. Truex. Truex. It’s the No. 78 team’s title to lose.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)