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Bowles-Eye View: The Price Of NASCAR Legends Lost

As of Tuesday, eight NASCAR races remain in Jeff Gordon’s illustrious career. Come Wednesday, the number of points-paying Cup events for Tony Stewart will be reduced to a mere 44. Two of the sport’s most famous names, recognizable on the street, in commercials and through Victory Lane will be pulling up rocking chairs to watch the 2017 Daytona 500.

That’s reality.

A look at the stats of these two men makes it easy to see why they’re first ballot Hall of Famers. Combined, they’ve totaled seven championships, more than 130 Cup victories and won a whopping $270 million on tour. Both are the winningest drivers on road courses in the modern era; they’ve each won a handful of Brickyard 400s. Stewart still seeks the sport’s Super Bowl – he’ll get one more chance at Daytona this February – while Gordon has won it three times. Stewart, however has a championship earned as an owner/driver, one of the rarest feats especially within a sport where simply running a top-tier team these days is a multi-million dollar, 100-plus employee operation.

Retirements for both men are not surprising. Gordon, faced with an ailing back has often been the victim, never the victor in NASCAR’s Chase format. Teammate Jimmie Johnson has cleaned up, winning six titles over the last decade to his zero and, at age 44 Gordon never had the desire to race into his 50s. Stewart, meanwhile has shown dramatic decline, failing to win a race since injuring his leg in a sprint car accident back in the summer of 2013. The Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy hurt his rehab, and you wonder whether it’s permanently derailed his focus inside the racecar.

The sport could not expect both men, filled with star power and a large legion of fans to stick around forever. Father Time forces all athletes into retirement someday; stock car racing is no exception. The world evolves and we go through transitions; we’ve jumped from Richard Petty to Cale Yarborough to Darrell Waltrip to Dale Earnhardt. Life happens.

The problem is, these days NASCAR feels frozen. Looking at the landscape of this sport post-Stewart and Gordon sometime within the last decade you notice it stopped evolving. The issues have been well documented, four-car teams taking control to the point new ownership gets squeezed quicker than a Tropicana orange. Everyone from 50 Cent to Randy Moss has tried (and failed) to establish a team in the sport while the money has solidified in the hands of a select few. Drivers within those organizations get signed to long-term deals; the pathway of development has gotten restricted.

That leaves us with few options in terms of budding superstars after Gordon and Stewart leave us. For example, take a look at the rookie classes we’ve had in NASCAR since the start of 2009. Judge for yourself where the emerging talent is these days within the sport.

2009: Joey Logano, Scott Speed*, Max Papis*

2010: Kevin Conway*

2011: Andy Lally*

2012: Stephen Leicht*, Josh Wise

2013: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danica Patrick, Timmy Hill

2014: Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman, Ryan Truex*, Parker Kligerman*

* – No longer in Cup

As you can see, this list has produced several failures, just one race winner (Logano) and plenty of what-might-have-beens from talented men driving less-than-talented equipment. The threshold of the next generation has been restrained, the same guys running up front while these rookies never got the exposure needed to attract a true fanbase.

Now, Gordon and Stewart retiring certainly provide a platform for other opportunities. Soon-to-be-rookie Chase Elliott inherits top-notch Hendrick Motorsports equipment and can make an immediate impact. Ryan Blaney, not listed here as an official rookie candidate, could be run full-time in the near future by Team Penske. Both men have what it takes to win at the Cup level, each paired with a famous last name that could bring over some semblance of a fan following should they succeed.

As for the others? So many people don’t know enough about them. TV coverage is focused on the Chasers, not building a narrative each week about a guy predestined to run no better than 25th place. Heck, half the race fans in the stands might think Annett is their neighbor down the street instead of Clint Bowyer’s future teammate in 2016. With the list of Cup qualified drivers dwindling, so is the name recognition of half the drivers in the field who haven’t accomplished something worth talking about.

That, more than anything is the biggest hole left behind by Gordon and Stewart’s departure. Both men will stick around the sport, one as a broadcaster and the other running a four-car operation and a key track (Eldora) to the sport’s future success. But off-track excursions do little to turn fans into paying customers. Will Gordon and Stewart fans stick around and attach themselves to one of these other names? Has the product they’ve seen been strong enough to convince them their own time as a fan should continue?

And what about Fortune 500 companies taking a future look at the sport? What recognizable name can they trumpet now that two of the sport’s biggest stars are leaving the stage? The first name that comes to mind is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Guess what, folks; he’s no spring chicken. Earnhardt, Johnson and Kevin Harvick will all be 40 by the end of the 2015 season. Considering Gordon and Stewart will be done by age 45, well, the end could be near for several more familiar faces.

An aging corps of drivers pairs with aging owners and an aging fanbase. How will NASCAR relate to the next generation? How will they cope? Every retirement within the sport has tied itself to the rise of a new group of stars. One can hope the same will happen here.

The sport officially loses two living legends soon. If only on their way out they knew how to effectively replace them.

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kb

Good points, but NASCAR seems not to have thought about those pesky “old time fans”..people who like Stewart, Dale Jr. and Gordon are NOT old, but NASCAR treats them as senile old folks who don’t “get what they are doing”! These people as many fans do, have the clout to make or break NASCAR realistically, despite what the TV revenue gives them. Do they really think that some young kid buying a “NASCAR” game is going to run his ignorant butt to the nearest track, because he fell in love with the “sport”? Stupid. Sorry to say, they are doing nothing but pushing away the strong core that can educate others and get them to enjoy. Nope, the politically correct scene (for whatever insanity is at the moment) and the 15 minute social media warrior is what they are concerned about. For all the “trends” they follow, do they not notice if they are on the “trend” list, it is for a nanosecond and poofffff they are gone? Also, how the races are run is a big factor, people are done and cannot be bothered for many good reasons. Stupid, stupid, stupid people.

babydufus

great points all. yet the big… no huge money continues to roll into nascar’s owner.
lowest rating in anyone’s memory… no biggie… we signed a record deal.
we still have a few “official product” of nascar slots available.. but not many
can’t get a full competitive field.. no worries. have someone call that old guy… wassis name?? Hogan Sheperd, oh and get that other old guy darryl cope… they’ll show up for some tow money.

old timer fan and drivers (journey men and stars alike) can leave this excuse for a sport, and it won’t make a difference.
nothing is going to change until the money starts drying up.
that’s going to be a long time coming and i think it’s going to keep getting worse before it gets better.
and by the time it does… no one will care.
that’s plain to see.

kb

Yup!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

janice

wow i agree with kb!

as one article i read said, stewart has never liked the circus tied to nascar, all the pomp and circumstance, the dog and pony show.

i recently heard that gordon had decided a few years ago to walk away, but was asked to stay. gordon has been hurt and we know stewart has been hurt. a 40+ yr old body takes longer to heal. once gordon became a father, his priorities in life changed. looking at both gordon and stewart the look tired. they came in as kids, and are retiring tired.

just watch kyle busch on sundays during pre-race, his legs hurt him. he’s not 100% yet, and we know hamlin, who i think is mid-30’s, every year he’s ailing.

i honestly think that when jr retires, na$car will fade. harvick, kez, logano, busch, johnson can only carry it so far. the dillon’s haven’t set the world on fire, and those drivers who still have that fire like reagan smith, na$car will muzzle them.

Parp

Here is a possible nascar marketing ploy.

If enough talent retires princess sparkle pony and Childres’s grandsons will be competitive!

Carl D.

Childress’ grandsons… yes. Danica… I seriously doubt it.

Mike

Caveat: I am a gray haired curmudgeon. While Gordon, Stewart are decent people, to me they represent the downfall of NASCAR: pretty boy yankees who admit they turned to stock cars bc they couldn’t get good open wheel rides (wasn’t that a movie plot?). Stewart even admits as much in an AP article, “NASCAR has never been his love.”

NASCAR’s money lust exploited the open wheelers to find new “markets” and turn their back (and thumb their nose) at the blue collar Southern core fans in real & tangible ways. I resented it then continue to do so now.

What’s the price of these “legends” lost? I don’t know and really don’t care.

Stewart seems passionate about short track & local touring series. That’s admirable. Not sure what motivates Gordon…manicures perhaps.

janice

i remember years ago i saw gordon on regis and kelly and he was getting a foot bath in rose petals.

stewart needs to not do a dw farewell tour…..that also is something gordon spoke of when he made his decision. that dw farewell retirement tour was pitiful.

Bill B

As the title of George Harrison’s album states,,,, “All Things Must Pass”.

Drivers have been coming and going forever. The difference is that there doesn’t seem to be many new fans coming and most of the old fans are going (or looking for an excuse to go). It’s hard to say how this will play out in the long run and it may be difficult to determine in the short run. Attendance and ratings have been going down for years. Unless there is a nosedive in the next two years we won’t be able to tell whether the drop is because of Gordon and Stewart fan bases exiting or just the normal draining we’ve been witnessing for the last decade.

Carl D.

Exactly. If you could magically take 43 of the greatest stock car drivers in history and put them in today’s cars, on today’s tracks, with today’s rules (and inconsistent enforcement of those rules) and today’s championship format, no one would stick around to watch the parade for very long. It’s not the drivers as much as it is the sorry state of the racing, the crappy broadcasting, and the gross mismanagement of the sport. But I preach to the choir…

JohnQ

The cars being identical except for the decals doesn’t help either. I’m. Ford guy, I’ve never really cared who was driving. Whatever that is NASCAR puts on the track these days it has no connection to stock cars. The more the cars move away from any resemblance to production vehicles the less interesting I find the whole thing. Toyota Camary race car! Really? What’s next, badging up a NASKIT vehicle and calling it the Fiat 500?

russ

Guess I have to be the voice of dissent. Having watched and followed Nascar since ’63 there has been a constant rotation of drivers. Each time one of the superstars leaves its the end of the world. But somehow that never seems to happen. Fans latch on to someone else, sometimes without even noticing it, and we move on.
Will the number of fans decline? Almost certainly they will. But that is preordained by the world we live in as well as Father Time.
Rest easy, its the way of the world. The next generation will be having the same conversations years from now.

Ken

Yes, Russ, there has always been a rotation of drivers. The first driver I cheered for was Fred Lorenzen. Then, when David Pearson took over his ride, Pearson was “The Man”. Later, after Pearson hung up the helmet, it was Bill Elliott. While “the old guard” was coming to the end of their career, there seemed to be some young driver coming up who sparked some interest, and managed to keep my interest going.

Today is different, and not in a good way. Is it the “vanilla” drivers? Hardly! The fans bemoan these so-called vanilla driver, but, if some driver dares speak his (or her) mind, the fans demand that driver’s head! Brad Keselowski comes to mind. Add in that a driver is determined, by NASCAR, to be popular if that driver is marketable. Since when is being marketable more important than talent? No, the problem is NASCAR’s business model. It’s broken, and it’s failing miserably. What Brian France thinks the fans want is wrong, and whoever is advising him of what fans want, they are leading him down the garden path. They haven’t got a clue! And sadly, neither does Brian. His father and grandfather were both thugs, goons, and bullies, and ran the sport like a dictatorship, but, they made it work. Why? Because, they knew who was number one, and it was the fans. Without the fans, the sport was nothing. So, they did what they could to attract the fans. Brian and his advisors are driving the fans away in droves. When Gordon and Stewart ride off into the sunset, not many fans will pick up on some young newcomer like Chase Elliott. They’re fed up with the crap, the constant rule changes, the manipulation, the blatant favoritism, the “it’s entertainment” mentality. Those fans are leaving, and Brian doesn’t seem to care. Too bad. It was good while it lasted, but what has happened is more than a lot of us can stand. The thrill is gone, which is sad for me to say, especially with being a fan since 1961.

russ

Maybe we’ve just gotten older and become more cynical. I confess that I certainly have. Yet no matter how much I am disgusted by the current product I still keep up with it a little bit. I suspect most of those who say they wont when their favorite driver retires will continue.

Steve

While they will never say it publicly, I firmly believe Gordon and Stewart are retiring because they are sick of the circus that is Nascar. Add in the 38 week grind and the constant Chase hype, and that just pushes them out the door even more. The guys are from the old guard. And I’m sure they are tired of the WWE Nascar world that they are forced to live in now.

While these writers keep saying Stewart is “retiring”, they obviously didn’t watch his press conference too closely. They guy is not retiring, but simply cutting back on his Cup schedule. If Tony doesn’t win Daytona in February, I would be my paycheck that he is there in 2017 trying to win it since he hasn’t done it yet. I would expect to see him at Indy, Darlington and a few other races as well.

There are many reasons why Nascar will not be able to replace Stewart/Gordon fans. Some have been addressed already with the diehards essentially being shown the door by BZF, which prevents the next generation of fans from being introduced to the sport. Also since the Cup guys win in the lower series every week, its tough for fans to latch on to a guy who finishes 5th every week, despite all the hype given to the media chosen ones. There are many more but these are 2 of the bigger ones in my opinion.

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