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Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday November 15, 2013
In just three days, NASCAR will never be the same. No, it’s not about Jimmie Johnson inching toward Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty in the history books. It’s about what the sport will lose after four drivers, among the last remnants of a different time, walk away for the last time.
If you’re among the fans who started watching NASCAR during its huge popularity surge in the early 2000’s, you don’t remember a sport without Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, or Ken Schrader. Labonte and Burton were at the height of their careers then; Labonte was fresh off his championship season to kick off the millennium, Burton seemed to be perpetually on the verge. Martin and Schrader were already veterans of the sport, perpetual faces among those in the top 10 in points at the end of season after season.
But the thing the four drivers had in common that many fans will remember long into their retirement was their class. You’d have been hard-pressed to find a race fan who’d say a bad word about any of them, even if they were loyal supporters of other drivers. All four were the kind of driver about whom fans would say, “Well, if my guy can’t win, he’d be great.” All four raced others with respect, and got respect in return. They were the kind of drivers NASCAR listened to when they spoke.
All four drivers came from a simpler time, a time when talent and persistence at your local short track, or in a series like ASA were still enough to turn an owner’s head. If you could prove yourself on the race track and a car owner believed in you, sponsorship was likely to follow. Rookie Of the Year meant something, because there were several worthy candidates every year. Schrader and Burton were both Rookies of the Year, and Labonte was beaten for the honor by eventual four-time champion Jeff Gordon. Burton beat ten other candidates, including two Nationwide Series champions and four eventual Sprint Cup race winners, one of whom happened to be his own brother. Rookie of the Year meant something. Talent meant something more than it does now.
There was a period of time when these guys were a real threat on the race track almost every week. Combined, Burton, Labonte, Schrader and Martin have been responsible for one championship, 86 race wins, 584 top-5 finishes and 39 speeches at the year-end banquet for top-10 points finishes –and those are only their Sprint Cup numbers. Labonte was also a Nationwide Series champion back when that really meant something; he was the first driver to win titles in both of NASCAR’s top series and is still the only one to win them both having run the Nationwide Series as a series regular and not a Cup interloper. Labonte, Schrader, and Martin all have wins in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series. Their impact on the sport through their numbers alone is impressive.
If the 2001 Daytona 500 is the defining moment in NASCAR’s popularity surge (and a great change among fans as the old guard were affected by Dale Earnhardt’s death and the new ones tuned in because of it), or the day the sport changed into the “new” NASCAR that it has become today, then the sport has aged rapidly in the last twelve years. After Burton, Labonte, Schrader, and Martin walk into the sunset, just six drivers who were in the race that fateful day will remain as full-time drivers in the Cup Series. Jimmie Johnson had yet to make his Cup debut; on that weekend, he had just failed to qualify for the Nationwide Series race that ran on Saturday. 2012 champion Brad Keselowski was just 17 years old.
The late 1990’s were NASCAR’s halcyon summers. Fans felt like they knew their favorite drivers. There was, at least, the illusion that almost anyone could pull out a win. The young talent was seriously talented. Was the racing that much better? That’s debatable, but the drivers and the fans made it seem so. The stands were full and you could strike up a conversation with the folks sitting next to you about racing that was friendly…fans felt like family, because everyone had something in common and it was all in good fun.
After Sunday’s race, just two drivers—Jeff Gordon and Joe Nemechek—will be left from those days. That happens, of course, as people age and move on, but this time it feels different, more final, somehow. NASCAR lost its innocence on that fateful February day in 2001, and the last reminders of a simpler time are slowly walking away.
It’s not just four drivers that will be missing from NASCAR when the engines roar back to life in February. It’s the connection to the past, to when and why many fans fell in love with a sport that has since let them down flat…yet they still watch because they remember what it was like in those days when Burton, Labonte, Schrader, and Martin were on top of the world. Because when they were on top of the world, so were we.
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Sunday will indeed be the end of an era. My NA$CAR “career” started with the first ever televised Daytona 500. We didn’t even own a color TV back then. But I watched with great fascination. My first ever race in person was at the famed North Carolina Motor Speedway…. The Rock! I have been to over 125 races at a dozen different tracks in the last 25 plus years. I used to attend 12 to 15 races a year. And yes, I am a die-hard Mark Martin fan, all the way back to the days of his time in the Busch series and his first Winston Cup win at the Rock in 1989 – I was there! I still have and wear my #6 Valvoline hat.
While having never met the man in person, I feel as though I know as a close friend. I have never heard, or seen, or heard tell of a moment when Mark totally lost his cool or temper. I don’t think he has ever viciously cussed out a competitor, intentional punted a fellow driver from a race in order to win, or thrown gear, water bottles, or punches at anyone that crossed him. Yes Sunday will be the end of an era; we will see one of the best examples of a true gentleman, a true professional, a true racer climb from his machine one last time and walk away. His kind won’t come round again for a long time.
Mark, if you happen to read this, thank you sir for 30 plus years of true pleasure watching a man do what he loved to do every time he put hand to wheel and machine to track. You will be missed. Fair winds and following seas my friend.
Good story, right on the mark. The new nascar has converted me to an occasional observer over the past ten years.
Makes me sick to watch this 10 race championship crap. Sad to see the racing series continue to spiral down.
MJR – Really great comment.
So sad!! Like PCarp I have become an occasional viewer rather than diehard fan too. The Chase coupled with the poor TV coverage have totally turned me off. Sometimes I wonder if the reporters even remember these legends are on the track with all their glorifying of the young guys. These 4 men will be sadly missed.
Good article, I hope the talking heads on Sunday at least give their prerace garbage about all things HMS a rest and turn that time over to highlight this great group of guys. Nice post MJR..ah memories.
Very hard to believe those guys will be gone. It feels like ages ago that Labonte was winning races and championships in the 18 car. I still feel NASCAR was at its most competitive in the 1990s. Sure the Earnhardt and Gordon dominated, but there were many teams outside the top multi-car teams that could compete for wins and even championships (Yates, Bill Davis, Morgan McClure, etc.) It might be more competitive now, but it is more concentrated in the big-4 (Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, Childress) and their satellites.
Bobby had a great career helping put Joe Gibbs on the map along with Dale Jarrett,Schrader was always a wheel man ,he could race wheel barrells and win.Jeff had a great career with Rousch/Exide, then with RCR and brought pride to Va.,Mark I think will keep racing,didn’t he retire once till the money showed up.
Preach on, kb. But it’s likely that if those four are mentioned at all, it will only be in the context that Martin and Schrader both drove for HMS, Labonte’s Joe Gibbs team ran HMS engines for a time, and Jeff Burton was the first rookie of the year after HMS driver Jeff Gordon.
MJR..Re Mark Martin ..Thanks Mark (& I was an Earnhardt fan) I Have cheered for Mark many times & it is sad (sometimes) the charactor that existed in that era is just not in this age of pretty boy preprogrammed talking head driver…1 TO GO!
Really can’t say it any better than MJR…I was introduced to the sport by a Rusty Wallace fan and a Jeff Gordon fan at Talladega…and yes, camping with fans of those 2 drivers in the late 90s was very entertaining!! At the end of that weekend I had noticed the 6 car tenaciously hanging at the front, and asked about him…on-track, he seemed like a scrapper, always driving hard to get the best finish he was capable of, and turned out off-track he was a man I could respect also; I was a Mark Martin fan from that weekend on. That was 1998.
When Mark stepped back, I, like many others over the years, found myself in the situation of trying to find another driver of the next generation I respected as much as I did Mark…enter Carl Edwards. He has many of the same traits as Mark, Bobby, Jeff, and his cousin, Kenny, which is part of what drew me to him. (Coincidentally, since Carl didn’t have a lot of souvenirs his first season, and took over the 99 ride from Jeff Burton, my first 99 earrings were found at a discount tent at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and were originally sold as Jeff Burton souvenirs.)
The sport won’t be the same, but that’s the point…time moves on, no matter how much we would like it to stand still, and eventually good drivers have to step back, make room for the next generation. Here’s hoping more of the newer generation of drivers strive to be more like these heros of the sport.
I really miss the real Nascar when real men drove real stock cars.
Mark Martin overstayed his welcome in the new Nascar of fluff and manipulation.
And Amy, the racing really was better in the late ’90s. Not as good as the bias ply ’80s, but still light years ahead of todays manipulated milqe toast farce of a series.
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