The Cup series has endured a rash of retirements in recent years as drivers who came on the scene during the sport’s peak years, from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, hit their 40s. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Danica Patrick, Matt Kenseth and NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., are just a few to step away from full-time competition prior to 2018.
This season, the hits keep coming; the only difference is that none in this group has an argument to make for inclusion in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be celebrated; each one made an impact on the sport for well over a decade. Let’s take a closer look.
STAT LINE: 582 Cup starts, seven wins, 63 top 5s, 168 top 10s, 11 poles
CAME OF AGE WHEN… Sterling Marlin hurt his neck, sidelining him in the midst of competing for the 2002 Cup series championship against Mark Martin and Tony Stewart. McMurray, then a minor league driver, was tapped to sub, and he set a modern-era NASCAR record by winning in just his second Cup start, at Charlotte Motor Speedway that October. The victory earned him a full-time ride with Chip Ganassi Racing for 2003 and beyond.
BEST WIN: 2010 Daytona 500. McMurray led just two laps but prevailed in a dramatic green-white-checkered finish in which the sport’s restrictor plate master, Dale Earnhardt Jr., charged all the way to his rear bumper. McMurray would go on to win another crown jewel, the Brickyard 400, in the same year along with the fall race at Charlotte.
REMEMBERED FOR: Chasing the Chase. McMurray barely missed the first version of NASCAR’s postseason in 2004, winding up the “best of the rest” in 11th. Who knew he’d spend the next decade as the sport’s only full-time Cup driver to go 11 years without a playoff bid? McMurray finally broke through in 2015, making it in three straight years with Ganassi, but he never cracked the top 10 in the final standings.
FUTURE PLANS: McMurray plans to run one final Cup race, the 2019 Daytona 500, and then move to Fox as a NASCAR analyst.
STAT LINE: 529 Cup starts, 18 wins, 93 top 5s, 176 top 10s, 27 poles
CAME OF AGE WHEN… Bill Elliott unexpectedly retired from full-time Cup racing after the 2003 season. Kahne, who had just one then-Busch Series win to his credit, was tapped to replace Elliott in a minor surprise. But the 24-year-old proved the critics wrong with two runner-up finishes in his first three Cup starts, beginning a spirited Rookie of the Year bid that fell just short of the playoffs.
BEST WIN: 2017 Brickyard 400. Kahne’s final victory came in the twilight of his career during a dismal final season with Hendrick Motorsports. There was some behind-the-scenes maneuvering to wriggle Kahne out of his contract, but the driver kept his focus and survived a crash-filled race at one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events. It was a dream come true for this sprint car graduate to win Indianapolis.
REMEMBERED FOR: Unfulfilled potential. Kahne, always one of the sport’s most marketable drivers, was popular at the racetrack and in the boardroom. During his prime, he spawned a national fan following through a series of Allstate commercials, and he still has more Twitter followers than current NASCAR Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott. Manufacturers even brought lawsuits to keep Kahne when he switched rides. But through it all, a driver expected to dominate the sport never quite climbed the mountain. Despite being given the keys to Dodge’s Cup operation, he posted just one season with three or more wins (2006). Then, after Hendrick Motorsports poached him, he managed only one top-5 points finish (2012).
FUTURE PLANS: Kahne plans to focus on his sprint car team and his health. In-car dehydration forced an earlier retirement than expected in fall 2018, and doctors are still working to pinpoint the cause.
STAT LINE: 438 Cup starts, three wins, 19 top 5s, 69 top 10s, eight poles
CAME OF AGE WHEN… Legendary Robert Yates Racing decided it was time to move on from Ricky Rudd. A ride swap followed for 2003 as Rudd went to the Wood Brothers while Sadler jumped over after four underperforming years running the No. 21 Ford. He wound up winning twice with RYR, making his lone Cup series playoff appearance in 2004.
BEST WIN: 2001 Bristol spring race. Fans will forever remember this moment, perhaps the final time the old David Pearson-Richard Petty rivalry flared up with their old teams. Sadler, driving the No. 21 that Pearson drove to a Hall of Fame career with the Wood Brothers, bested Petty’s No. 43 and John Andretti in a riveting battle, leading the final 70 laps to earn his first Cup win. It’s the most recent 1-2 finish between the two teams in NASCAR history.
REMEMBERED FOR: A career renaissance in NASCAR’s now-Xfinity Series. After losing his full-time Cup ride following the 2010 season, Sadler became an elder statesman of sorts for the sport’s Triple-A division. In eight full-time seasons, he won eight times and finished runner-up in the point standings four times with three different teams.
FUTURE PLANS: Sadler wants to spend time with his family and coach his kids’ basketball teams. However, his older brother Hermie is a Fox analyst, and that appears to be a natural fit for Sadler.