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.
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.
2010: Kevin Conway*
2011: Andy Lally*
* – 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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