There has been lots of talk over the last two seasons how the sudden exodus of veteran drivers leaving NASCAR is a reflection of changing business practices and audience demands. It appeared that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement that 2017 would be the end of his racing career was simply the exclamation point on this trend. However, when you take a good look at the final full-time seasons of Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick, and Dale Jr. you do have to wonder if the changeover in racing cockpits is really more a reflection of their age, at least for two of them.
First off, let’s put Patrick’s contribution to this tale to bed. While Danica is one of the most popular athletes in the world, and the only full-time female behind the wheel of a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup car, she is not one of the best drivers on the planet. In five full-time seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing, she has finished 24th or worse in points. She brought sponsor dollars with her notoriety, but we all knew that at some point her talent would have to start matching up to expectations. And her luck has run out.
I have the greatest respect for the amount of determination and energy that she brought to the sport, and thousands of little girls now believe racing is a possible future for them, but Danica’s endnote has more do to with failing to deliver on the promise of excellence more than anything else.
Now, let’s talk Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. Did you realize that they were both fighting for the same titles in the XFINITY Series back in 1998 and 1999? Junior won the series trophy both years with Kenseth finishing second in 1998 and third in 1999. They arrived at the Cup level at the same time. Earnhardt came with his Dad’s name and support. Kenseth was called up from the regional series out of Wisconsin by Robbie Reiser. Where Earnhardt Jr. made headlines with his teenager and sponsor appeal, Kenseth went about the business of becoming a Cup champion in 2003. Still, Junior wasn’t too far behind in the win column in those early years, finishing third in points in 2003.
As time passed, Kenseth remained a true racer, providing very little for the NASCAR gossip mill as he racked up 39 wins which left him ranked 20th in the all-time wins column. He earned his stripes at Roush Racing in the No. 17, starting out as that young upstart and growing into the position of learned veteran. The switch to Gibbs in 2013 was a little surprising, but as usual Kenseth completed the team change with as little pomp as possible and continued to add to his win column regularly.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt Jr. struggled with his fame and his father’s early death, but eventually grew into his own character. Still he managed to collect a very respectable 26 victories, ranking him 29th in the stats column. We watched Junior try to avoid the media, open a bar, run his own XFINITY stable–in general he was much more visible over the years and collected an equally vocal fanbase.
So, while we might look at Kenseth’s departure from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as something of a surprise, it is actually happening pretty much on schedule. Just think a moment; other contemporaries that have left the series over the past three years include Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. The end of Kenseth’s career is following the natural pattern, but perhaps Matt is resisting more as he has repeated that it isn’t truly his choice. Dale is leaving on his own terms, citing repeated bouts with concussion as the deciding factor, but he is in the same age group as all those other drivers.
While their careers began and ended at the same time, these two simply did not drive the same path along the way. But in the end, they are part of the group of drivers that belonged to another era. It may not so much be that the sport is undergoing a major shift, but that it is simply time for these veterans to move on with their careers exploring new options in broadcasting, as a team owner, or other endeavors.
Maybe we are aging, too. Perhaps the interest in the sport will also shift as we follow these familiar faces down unexplored roads. Maybe it is all part of looking toward the future.
Until we meet again, have a happy holiday season! See you in Daytona.
Once again, we saw true teamwork rise above expectations. Since Jason Burdett was suspended for the No. 7 team of Justin Allgaier for the final race of the season in the XFINITY Series, they really needed an ace on top of the pit box for their final run to the championship. Chad Knaus stepped up to fill in the void–since it was his No. 48 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pit crew servicing the vehicle. Even if they didn’t win the big trophy, it was still a championship caliber move on Knaus’ part.
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