For years, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series had a bit of a problem: finding an abundance of young talent that could challenge for wins among the veterans on a weekly basis. The Rookie of the Year battles (some lack thereof) reflected it; until more recently, the series could go years without a strong class, with either a singular driver running away with the title or a lesser-known backmarker gaining the distinction almost by default.
That was a testament to a few things, among them the simple fact that NASCAR’s current stars were not prepared to give up the ghost anytime soon. Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin and others who originally came to the sport in the 1980s, ’90s and even very early 2000s were still competing for championships into their 40s. If spots weren’t opening up and others weren’t being created at all, it was a slightly more harrowing hurdle to cross to make it into the series.
Except now the times seem to be changing, evidenced most recently via this week’s revelation that Stewart will retire at the end of the 2016 season. Cup champions are beginning to hang it up.
Let’s assume that Stewart and Gordon, the latter out of his famed No. 24 seat in just a few weeks’ time, never return to NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, that their retirement isn’t merely a break from the monotony of full-time racing and instead an excuse to show up on occasion to run some races here and there (see: Terry Labonte). If neither driver indeed enters a Cup race after their retirements, the sport will have seen a champion of its top series depart from competition in three straight years: Stewart come 2016, Gordon at year’s end and then Labonte, who has driven part-time since 2004 and finally retired for good last year.
So far in the history of the series, that’ll be the first time the sport lost at least one champ in three straight years, and when you add to the tally Bill Elliott, who drove his final race in 2012, it stands to be four in five years.
In all, before Gordon and Stewart take the foot off the gas pedal, 22 former Cup champions are no longer active, making 24 after 2016, all things constant. Never before has three straight years seen at least one champion exit, though there are some significant comparisons, among them the year 1988.
In 1988, three different former champs hung it up at season’s end, two via similar reasons as Gordon and Stewart: it was simply time. That’s Benny Parsons, the 1973 champion who drove a car for Junie Donlavey his final season before making the transition to the broadcast booth, and three-time victor Cale Yarborough, moving to focus full-time on his self-owned race team after a 10-race final season. The third? Bobby Allison, who was nearing the end of his career by then but had won the Daytona 500 that year before a lap 1 accident at Pocono Raceway ended his run prematurely due to injury.
The same happened in 1964: Rex White and Lee Petty ran their final Cup races that season, as did Joe Weatherly, whose career ended in a fatal crash at Riverside International Raceway at just 41 years old.
In all, that’ll make four champions who’ve retired in the decade of the 2010s. Only the ’60s has had more — in addition to Weatherly, Petty and White, others included Tim Flock (’61), Herb Thomas (’62) and Ned Jarrett (’66). Could that number bump up? Very possibly, with Bobby Labonte seemingly nearing the end of his Cup career, too, not to mention the fact that Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are now in their 40s, with Kevin Harvick joining them in December.
Either way, it’s an interesting time in NASCAR. Drivers come and go often, but those that made a tangible impact on the sport, most notably former champions, are fewer and farther between. At times these drivers seem as though they’ll always be here, stalwarts in an industry that goes through its share of changes. True to form, Stewart has said he’ll likely run other series whenever he gets the itch, and it’s not out of the question to see Gordon do the same. But once they’re gone from a series like Cup, it does feel like something is truly lost, an unfamiliarity that only heals with the addition of new champions, if it heals at all.
The turnover that wasn’t occurring in the late 2000s and early 2010s now seems to be occurring. It’s an exciting time, but also a little bittersweet.