It could be argued that there has never been a two-year period in NASCAR history like the one that just transpired.
Think about it. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle all retired before the 2017 season. Then Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth followed suit after the ’17 campaign.
That’s a total of 254 race wins and eight championships walking away from the sport in roughly 12 months. And the losses can’t be measured by those staggering numbers alone.
Earnhardt is a 15-time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award, an obvious fan favorite whose departure is as frightening as it is enormous, despite the fact that he’ll still be around as an XFINITY Series car owner and an NBC analyst on Monster Energy Cup Series races.
Gordon and Stewart were two other giants of the sport, each with his own massive fan following. To a slightly lesser degree, the same could be said of Kenseth, Edwards and Biffle — not to mention another fan favorite who is departing the full-time scene in Danica Patrick, the most successful female driver in NASCAR history.
“I think we will all look back on the year 2017 and say, ‘That was one of the biggest cap-offs in two decades,’ ” says former driver and current FOX NASCAR analyst Kenny Wallace. “Never in all the time I can remember in NASCAR history has there been a time quite like this. We all watched my brother Rusty and Ricky Rudd and you go on and on, but they all retired. But never, ever, could we rattle off a list like the one from the last two years: Not just Dale Jr., but Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards.
“Those are five or six heavy hitters. Those aren’t small potatoes. Those are drivers who made huge impacts in NASCAR, and they all retired within two years.”
Who will replace them?
Well, get ready for a youth movement and a changing of the guard like you’ve not seen in NASCAR, as Wallace says, in two decades or more.
“The bottom line is, mark this era down,” Wallace says. “The end of 2017 marks the end of a major era in NASCAR. There’s nobody left except for maybe Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. ... Kurt Busch is the last driver to have raced with Dale Earnhardt Sr.”
There are some others, of course, who fall into the category of being quite accomplished and not quite as, uh, seasoned as the triumvirate Wallace mentions. That group includes Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin; Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson; and Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano — although Larson, at just 25, and Logano, at 27, still qualify as young guns who seem poised to take center stage, riding NASCAR’s unstoppable wave of change.
Larson and Logano are two of more than a dozen drivers 27 or younger who will be driving full-time in the Cup Series in 2018. And although Logano has been around for quite some time, as has the only other 27-year-old in Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, nine drivers on the list are 25 or younger and, except for Larson, all have three years or less experience of running in NASCAR’s top series.
The rest of the list includes the Hendrick Motorsports triumvirate of Chase Elliott, 22; Alex Bowman, 24; and William Byron, the defending XFINITY Series champion who is only 20. Bowman is replacing Earnhardt in the No. 88 Chevrolet, while Byron is replacing Kasey Kahne, whose contract was not renewed and who moved to another team. Elliott replaced Gordon in the iconic No. 24 Chevy when Gordon retired after the 2016 season and moved to the FOX Sports broadcast booth.
Other young guns include Ryan Blaney, 24, who moves over to Team Penske this season from Wood Brothers Racing, where he won one race last season; Austin Dillon, 27, who won the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 last May while driving the No. 3 Chevy for Richard Childress Racing; Ty Dillon, 25, who is joining his older brother at RCR; Chris Buescher, 25, who has one Cup win and will drive again for JTG Daugherty Racing; Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, 24, the first black driver with a full-time Cup ride since Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in 1971, who will drive the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports; Trevor Bayne, 26, who became the youngest winner ever of the Daytona 500 in 2011 and now drives for Roush Fenway Racing; 2016 XFINITY Series champion Daniel Suárez, NASCAR’s first Mexican-born title winner; and perhaps the best of the lot, 21-year-old Erik Jones, who is moving to Joe Gibbs Racing after a Rookie of the Year effort for Furniture Row Racing in 2017.
The group gives everyone in NASCAR the fervent hope that the considerable void left by the drivers who have departed the sport over the last two seasons will be more than capably filled.
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Asked about it before the season finale championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France insisted that there would be no dearth of stars making their way around tracks in Cup races in 2018. “They are here, and they’ve got to develop their performance, but they’re doing well,” France said. “You look at Ryan Blaney, you look at Chase (Elliott) almost making the (Championship 4) final race in Miami. Go down the list. We’ve got a loaded group.
“It’s true we’re in a transition. But that happens from time to time. Not usually in the concentrated manner that we have now, but it happens.”
Other long-time observers are optimistic about the changing of the guard.
“In a very short time, we’ve seen three of the drivers who have had the most impact on the sport in their generation retire and Carl Edwards step aside indefinitely,” says Mike Joy, NASCAR play-by-play announcer for FOX Sports. “I remember when (Richard) Petty, (David) Pearson, (Bobby) Allison and (Cale) Yarborough were at the tail end of their careers, and everyone was bemoaning, ‘Oh, my gosh, who will step up? Will we have any heroes? Will we have any superstars?’ And, of course, we did. That’s the way sports go. Someone retires and someone else takes their place.”
Larson, who is only 25, won four races last year in his fourth season as a full-time Cup driver and now has won five times in the last two years. His car owner, Chip Ganassi, says it is foolish for anyone to believe that the sport will be diminished as his driver and the other young guns point the way in the immediate future. But he also adds that their individual successes come down to way more than whether or not they simply can drive fast.
“I was talking to someone about how everybody wants to compare these drivers coming up to Jeff or to Tony or this guy, that guy, whoever they want to compare to,” Ganassi says. “They always say, ‘Well, Jimmie Johnson only won one XFINITY race.’ Everybody has these sort of one-liners that there’s no answer to. They want to compare everybody.
“I think today you have to look at these guys coming into the sport, you have to look in their totality. You have to look at their situation. You got to look at who the team is, who’s working on the car, who’s engineering the cars, who’s doing the pit stops. It’s not just the automatic come in and, you know, a hundred races later you’re winning races on a regular basis. I just think it takes a little more education than that today.
“You have to peel a little more of the onion back to get to that kind of analysis today. You have to look more in the totality of the whole situation when these young guys come in. ... It’s a big onion these days, and it’s getting bigger.”
For the car owners, having a Bowman to replace Earnhardt or a Byron to replace Kahne also has a positive impact on the company’s bottom line. While Earnhardt and Kahne were paid millions in salary (Dale Jr. much more, of course), estimates are that Bowman and Byron will each be paid first-year salaries in the $250,000 range this year — which, of course, they can supplement by taking in a percentage of their race winnings, finishing high in the final point standings and landing sponsorship and endorsement deals.
But the bottom line, of course, is that they will all be judged by their performances on the track. Joy, for one, says he is not concerned at all about that, noting that the changing of the guard was already in progress late last season.
“If you look closely, we’re already seeing it,” he says. “Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson. We have young drivers with superstar potential that they are just beginning to realize. The difference between this group and the group back in Cale’s and Bobby’s day is that these young drivers are here already. They are not going to have to race out from underneath the shadow of the established stars because they are making their own way right now. They’re running up front and capable of winning races.”
In other words, there’s no need to worry.
“There’s no question the landscape of the sport is changing,” says Bowman, who earned two full years of Cup experience in 2014 at BK Racing and in 2015 at Tommy Baldwin Racing and also subbed for Earnhardt for 10 races in 2016. “But there is a lot of great, young talent coming up. It’s just a really cool time to be coming into the sport and being part of it.”
– By Joe Menzer