In a world where the face of the average NASCAR driver has gone from 40, to 30, to 25 years old in the past decade, it’s been surprising to see the results of the past two weekends. Not only did Dale Jarrett become the fifth-oldest driver to win a race last Sunday at Talladega, but that effort was followed up by Mark Martin’s impressive performance at Kansas to score his 35th career victory. If you add the ages of the two drivers, you get a total of 94 years: that’s more than the ages of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers, and Kasey Kahne"¦combined. An even bigger stat; Martin and Jarrett’s wins are the first time two fortysomething drivers have scored back-to-back wins since Ward Burton and Bill Elliott won Loudon, Pocono, and Indianapolis in succession back in July and August of 2002.
So what’s behind the recent NASCAR trend of veterans rising to the front? Well, believe it or not, there’s some history behind this phenomenon. For fans new to the sport, you might have no idea"¦but as you read on, some of the old-time fans might catch on to what I’m talking about.
You see, back in the old days, in the late 1980s a very similar changing of the guard was taking place similar to what’s been happening in Nextel Cup the last couple of years. Guys like Earnhardt, Labonte, Wallace, and Elliott were rising to the top, displacing the first great stars of the modern era. Some have only heard their names in history books, other have seen them on the track many times; but there’s no denying the greatness of names like Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Benny Parsons, Bobby Allison, and Buddy Baker.
And in the same way today’s "young guns" are taking over the sport, pushing the older veterans into the background, Wallace, Elliott, Earnhardt, and others were taking control from these seasoned veterans no more than 20 years ago. Sure, the Wallaces and Earnhardts of the world were a little older when they took over, in their 30s and well-seasoned to go out and dominate Cup competition. But that didn’t make the transition any less gut-wrenching for the tens of thousands of fans who had followed Yarborough, Parsons, Petty, and others in their prime. By the mid-1980s, they found themselves falling far behind the back bumpers of Earnhardt, Wallace, and others, whose finishes made it clear that the older drivers’ time had passed.
Before the youngsters took over for good though, the veterans, well into their 40s like Martin and Jarrett, suddenly turned things around. The year was 1987, and the good fight to stay noticed began with the Daytona 500. While Bill Elliott won on that day in February, the Top 10 list from the race read like a who’s who of NASCAR’s greatest drivers: Benny Parsons (2nd), Richard Petty (3rd), Buddy Baker (4th), Bobby Allison (6th), and Cale Yarborough (10th).
As the season progressed, Bobby Allison won in July at Daytona (a preview of his 1988 Daytona 500 win to come), and the other veterans experienced success that had been eluding them for several years. Petty, fresh off his 3rd place finish at Daytona, went on to post a 2nd at Bristol a few races later on his way to 9 Top 5 finishes and an 8th-place finish in points, his first appearance in the Top 10 since 1984. Right behind him was Allison in 9th, who scored his first pole in 5 years during the season and seemed rejuvenated after son Davey arrived in earnest on the NASCAR scene with his first career Cup victories. Parsons had two more runner-up finishes on the year, while finishing solidly in the Top 20 in points. And Baker, despite running a limited schedule, ran strong, tacking on two additional Top 5 finishes to his resume after Daytona and finishing second behind Bobby Allison in the July race. Yarborough added two Top 5s to the record books during his limited schedule, as well.
Why do I mention all this? Because by the 1989 season, only one of these five drivers would be left on the circuit in Richard Petty. Baker made a brief comeback in 1990-92, making 17 races over those seasons, but never had a Top 5 finish again after 1987. Petty had just one, while Parsons and Yarborough had none, retiring after the 1988 season. And Bobby Allison, despite winning the 1988 Daytona 500, was out of racing by the end of that year after suffering serious injuries in a crash at Pocono. That’s five drivers gone, just like that, that totaled almost 400 wins on NASCAR’s top level.
Why should you know all this? Because we’re about to have the same type of amazing turnover. Kyle Petty, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Ken Schrader, and Dale Jarrett are either all retiring or considering retirement by the end of 2006. That’s 4 Nextel Cup Championships, 175+ wins, and 4,500+ Nextel Cup starts between them. Some have been on top of their game as of late, while some have been involved in a slump through the past couple of years.
However, as we’ve just shown, historically NASCAR veterans tend not to fade into the sunset like Darrell Waltrip did a few years ago. Surely, the "Young guns" of Kahne, Vickers, Busch, and others will take control of the sport in the next few years; it’s their time, and other established youngsters like Newman, Kurt Busch, Dale Jr., and others have pushed the veterans aside in the last few years. But the older drivers are approaching their last stand, fighting for every inch, every finish they have before they pack it in. Jarrett and Martin have already shown just as much, and expect more of the same from them and others as careers reach conclusions and checkered flags truly mean the final lap.
While there will be exceptions here and there, expect your favorite NASCAR veteran to leave the arena with talent still in hand and success in their pocket, fans wondering why the left and asking for more. But in a world where athletes wait way too late to retire, isn’t that the way it oughta be?
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