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.
Connect with Amy!
Contact Amy Henderson
©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!