The Frontstretch: Out With The Old, In With The Who? by Thomas Bowles -- Monday November 10, 2008

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Out With The Old, In With The Who?

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday November 10, 2008

 

For so many millions of us, favorite athletes become so much more. Role models for our kids, our communities, ourselves; they’re put on a pedestal of success we can only wish to achieve. Through them, we choose to live our wildest dreams, placed in a fantasy world in which a larger-than-life persona can show us the joys of perfection.

Every once in awhile, we get lucky in love, and the dream never dies. Our idols leave the sport we love at the top of their game, and we’re allowed to remember the end just the way we want it – like a fairy tale. But more often, the bubble bursts and we find out the truth – that these drivers we worship are human, too, unable to fend off the inevitability of age and time.

And that makes it so much harder when you see their careers come crashing down.

Or maybe you don’t. For most of the race on Sunday, four of NASCAR’s more respected veterans were but a blip on the radar screen in the Jimmie and Carl Show 2008 – playing far too long at every local movie theater near you. But if you looked hard enough, maybe you saw Kyle Petty fighting valiantly in what may have been his last race ever on the Sprint Cup tour. Taken out in an accident on Lap 275, Petty was competitive but concealed, hidden amongst the Chase hoopla that’s defined the last two months. Ditto for Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader, and Bill Elliott, all of whom could have also hummed their swan song depending on how qualifying goes at Homestead next weekend. But none of them finished in the Top 20, earning them about as much chance at the spotlight as Edwards has in stealing Johnson’s title bid away.

And that’s a crying shame. Together, they have four Daytona 500s, a Sprint Cup championship, 66 wins, and 94 poles to their credit. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the foursome came of age as NASCAR burst on the national scene, winning fans over as often as they were visiting Victory Lane. There was Elliott, the sport’s Most Popular Driver who moonlighted by winning the first ever Winston Million in 1985, becoming the first NASCAR wheelman to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated. There was Kyle, the son of the King, winding his way through a series of ups and downs before hitting it big with a man named Felix and a car painted Mello Yello. There was Marlin’s unmistakable Southern twang, his accent accentuated by his rise to prominence in Morgan-McClure’s Kodak Chevrolet. And then you had Schrader, the lovable “loser” who always had the speed in Hendrick equipment – just could never seem to turn the poles into wins often enough.

Bill Elliott and Ken Schrader share a laugh in victory lane of one of Elliott’s charity events last month. Another thing they share is seeing their careers sadly, quietly fade away as the 2008 season comes to a close.

Of course, the fact these men are still competing in their late 40s and early 50s is a victory in itself, considering the age of 18-year-olds in Cup rides and sponsors finding drivers too old to take a risk on at, oh, about 29. But they’ve made it this far, extending their careers every which way possible, hoping against hope with their fan base that Father Time won’t turn back the hands of fate.

Instead, hope has been replaced with the cruel hand of reality. None of these men have won a race since 2003, and most have toiled under the problems of poor equipment, limited chemistry, and next to no hope of success. Instead of Petty’s triumphant return to Victory Lane, honoring the life of son Adam after his 2000 death in the sport his family carried on its back – he’s put out to pasture, his team sold to investors who know there’s no emotion in their company’s bottom line. Rather than see Schrader get that first Cup win in 17 years, we see him hop from D-List ride to D-List ride, out there simply to do little more than collect a check. And perhaps most ironic of all is Elliott’s fate, a legend’s final days intertwined with perhaps the final moments of NASCAR’s Most Legendary team – the Wood Brothers.

But as these stars cross into the sunset, millions of fans who follow them also reach a crossroads. With the pain of their man’s undistinguished exit fresh in their minds – and the ugly reality of the current sport in front of them — can they make the transition to find a path to a new favorite driver? Or, will some of racing’s biggest fans find these moments the right time to pack up and ship out? Remember, these people have put in just as much time into NASCAR as the athletes they covet – one decades, two decades, some even three of unparalleled support and their cold, hard cash. But as NASCAR shifts to an era of 20-something sponsor’s dreams, will those advertising billboards connect with a different generation?

And it’s there that you stop and wonder in this time of uneasy transition. As Petty and Schrader and Marlin fall away, what unique personalities have emerged to replace them? Who has the charm of Marlin’s twang that will remind fans Tennessee is still on NASCAR’s radar screen? Who among these pampered stars has Elliott’s unparalleled work ethic to earn the respect of the blue collar base that built this sport? And without a connection to the King Richard Petty on the race track, will the King’s connection to our hearts – and the lessons we learn by both he and Kyle’s presence — be lost for good?

These questions aren’t easy to come to terms with. But as the Johnson-Edwards antidrama played out on Sunday, I found myself wondering them out loud more than ever. Both of those drivers are nice, honorable men with their own quirks that make them a marketer’s dream. But have they brought the old base of NASCAR to its feet? In Johnson’s case, we’ve talked at length many times about how the connection just doesn’t seem to be there. And with no new stars to break through in the last two seasons – Juan Pablo Montoya notwithstanding – who are the men that will fill the voids they and “bad boy” Kyle Busch aren’t reaching?

Very soon, we’re going to need some answers; and as Jeff Gordon looked older than ever on Sunday, it may not be long before we need even more. But for now, in this time of uncertainty let’s take a moment to appreciate the sunset, appreciating the past before we worry about our future. It’s a time to remember the joy that Petty, Schrader, Marlin, Elliott, and even the recently retired Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte brought to our lives. In their own special way, they became the heart that beat faster as the sport grew beyond their wildest dreams.

But as they prepare to leave stock cars behind, keep in mind they’re taking a piece of its soul away with them – one that will sorely need to be replaced.

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Mark
11/10/2008 06:46 AM
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“….. and the ugly reality of the current sport in front of them — can they make the transition to find a path to a new favorite driver? Or, will some of racing’s biggest fans find these moments the right time to pack up and ship out?”

Tom, I have but one driver left that I have always loved to watch race. He has been my favorite driver for 20 plus years… watched him since his days in the Busch series… and when Mark calls it for good… I really think I’ll be in the market for some boxes…….

Carl D.
11/10/2008 07:39 AM
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Yu know, it seems like only yesterday that Awesome Bill, Dale Sr., Mark, Ernie, and Rusty were winning most of the races. Now guys like Bill don’t get much more than a passing mention by the media covering Nascar. I undestand that times change, the sport changes, and the faces of it’s heroes change, but there seems to be very little respect given to the guys who have passed the torch. Maybe it’s because, like Bill, some of these guys have stayed on past their prime and rather than having gone out on top. Maybe it’s because today’s Nascar fan wasn’t around when Kyle was the King of Rockingham. Whatever the case, it’s a damned shame. When Jimmie Johnson wins his third straight championship this weekend, I wonder how many of the fans watching will remember the tough guy from Timmonsville SC that accomplished the feat first.

john
11/10/2008 08:34 AM
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You and me both Mark… I stopped watching all of the races turned part time… now Martin is back for one more full season in prime equipment, I’ll watch. After that, probably not.

Kevin in SoCal
11/10/2008 12:31 PM
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Good riddance to Sterling Marlin.

Carl D.
11/10/2008 12:53 PM
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Kevin…

Sterling may not have been as successful as Bill or Dale Sr., but he did win a couple of Daytona 500’s, and he was a colorful guy with a real Nascar pedigree. I still laugh when I think back to him getting out of his car to pull the fender out during the red flag at the Daytona 500 a few years back.

Kyle
11/10/2008 01:07 PM
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don’t forget that Kenny Schrader is more than a NASCAR racer — he’s a true racer to the core. anything on any track, you’ll find him doing it for the love of it. it is a shame that these vets haven’t gotten their respect they truly deserve, but how many of those in the media these days were even around then, or even alive???

Gail
11/10/2008 02:58 PM
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I have been as big a fan of Bill Elliott’s as anybody who ever followed the sport, but I really am OK with the way things are. First, the media ALWAYS tended to ignore Bill, so the fact they are ignoring his twilight years is no big suprise. Second, he is doing what he wants and what he loves – otherwise he would have quit on top after winning his second-last race as a full-time driver at Rockingham 2003. If this situation does not bother Bill, I am certainly not going to get maudlin about it myself. I am just hoping and praying that JJ gets his rightful crown next weekend. He is another one the press would rather ignore – witness ESPN’s spending most of the Phoenix race focused on their darling Carl Edwards. So spare the tears for somebody who really needs or wants them. Bill is happy hanging around the track and working with his son Chase as he develops into a race driver. That is the future and it does not look that bad to me.

Warren
11/10/2008 04:14 PM
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Great article. I live in the UK and have followed NASCAR since the mid-nineties. My two favourite drivers (along with Rusty) were and still are Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin. Marlin in particular never got the credit he has deserved for a great career and it was summed up by his treatment by Ganassi and Bobby Ginn/DEI. Both the cars he vacated have run worse since he exited.
I’d love to see Ganassi run Sterling in a limited schedule in the #40 car next season. Those were great days when Sterling nearly won the Championship.
Whether we see any of these guys in 2009 remains to be seen but if we don’t I’d like to thank them for being 4 great drivers and more importantly four of NASCAR’s best personalities.

Woody
11/10/2008 04:31 PM
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I was hoping you would leave Gordon out of your article.

Someone help me out here without being sarcastic.

Do you honestly think Gordon is done? There is only a few years difference between him and Johnson and Jr. and some others.

Either he has been testing for his wonderful teammates or he was told to lay back.

Thanks.

I was devastated Sunday.

ACEfromTN
11/10/2008 06:31 PM
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Let us not forget that Sterling Marlin had led the points in 2002 after 26 races before having to retire for the season after 29 races due to an injury.

If he’d been healthy, he could’ve won the 2002 championship instead of Tony Stewart or runner-up Mark Martin.

I don’t know whether it was the injury, time or both. But, he was never the same after that.

Sam
11/10/2008 06:54 PM
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“their careers sadly, quietly fade away as the 2008 season comes to a close.”
Ridiculous comment. I agree with Gail. There is nothing sad about an athlete or anybody else doing what he wants to do, on his own terms, even if it is on a reduced schedule or in semi-retirment. You would have to be an idiot to feel your “bubble had been burst” every time an athlete stayed around past his prime. Get real! Anybody remember Richard Petty, Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Hank Aaron? Did they go out on top? Er, noooo. We are seeing right now Brett Favre trying for a few more moments of glory on the football field, but if he doesn’t get that, so what? Mark Martin will likely find the same scenario next year. You only live once, so do it on your own terms, and don’t worry about somebody else’s opinion about your legacy. If you did it in your prime, that’s what people will remember.

Robert Eastman
11/11/2008 08:20 AM
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Not so fast at putting the old guys out to pasture. Martin has one more shot. Thanks Rick Hendrick for giving Mark one more chance at winning the Championship he so richly deserves.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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