There is a massive generational shift occurring in NASCAR. Eventually, it had to happen.
Few sports offer the opportunity to compete at a top level for over a decade. But NASCAR is different, as those reading this topic have likely figured out. Everything from the structure of how NASCAR is operated to how events happen vary compared to other sports, and it enables fans to stick with one favorite driver for an incredibly long time.
As one generation of NASCAR drivers hang up their helmet, a fresh crop of young racers are ready for the challenge ahead. Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and a select few who are lucky enough to have the opportunity to compete in NASCAR are indeed the future of American stock car racing.
It’s Not Easy To Say “Goodbye”
That’s why we say, “see ya later,” right?
None of the faces who are leaving or have left NASCAR are totally gone, nor will they be. Edwards attended a handful of races every now and then in 2017, and he did make himself available to the media when needed.
Biffle is now enjoying life on television as an analyst for NBC’s NASCAR America. After his 15-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, Biffle was forced out due to a lack of sponsorship, unable to find a competitive ride that would enable him to find Victory Lane once again. Instead, he did what he felt was right, stepping away from the racetrack to start his life after racing.
The same can be said for Kenseth, who really should not have been forced into a Biffle-like situation. 2017 was an “off year” for the 2003 Cup Series champ — if you can even call it that — with a victory, 10 top fives and 18 top 10s en route to a seventh-place finish in the standings.
But when Joe Gibbs Racing announced Jones, a protégé of 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch, would take over the No. 20 it was well-known that Kenseth would have a rough time finding a new ride. So it was time to say “adiós.”
That’s exactly what he did.
It was quite clear Kenseth wasn’t ready to retire, especially after winning at Phoenix International Raceway a week prior to his final race as a full-time Cup driver at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His calm demeanor spoke for itself after Homestead, where he finished eighth after running in the top 10 all afternoon.
“It is a little hard to explain,” he said after the race. “It’s pretty humbling and it makes you feel good when other people go out of their way to come and tell you something, show their respect for you or they enjoy being around you.”
Then, of course, there is Earnhardt. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for the 15th straight year walked away somewhat on his own. If it weren’t for recurring concussions, we might have seen him race longer. Either way, he rode off in style, enjoying every moment of his last season.
But Earnhardt enjoyed a lengthy 19 years at NASCAR’s premier level, just like Kenseth. His career is one that will be remembered for maneuvering like his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., at the restrictor plate tracks, diligently moving through the pack and using the science of the draft to his advantage.
Even with uncertainty, he finished out his final season. At one point, the 43-year-old didn’t even know if he’d be able to compete in NASCAR ever again. But he did.
Then, it was time to say goodbye.
The same will be said about Danica Patrick in the coming months as her NASCAR career dwindles down. Like Biffle and Kenseth, she, too, has no choice as sponsorship is dictating her future.
While it is certainly possible Patrick can line up partners for next year, given her uncanny marketing ability thanks to an international presence comparable to the likes of Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt, she simply isn’t having fun.
Patrick has continuously said if she’s not having fun, why do it? She makes a great point. Sure, she could race for a mid-level team, but how is that enjoyable after experiencing top-tier equipment? Now that her time with Stewart-Haas Racing has come to a conclusion, so has her hopes at becoming a winning driver in NASCAR.
The Road Ahead
It’s easy for anyone to say “the future is bright” in any sport. It’s usually a phrase that people don’t want to hear, if anything, because that usually is a juicy contradiction for what is about to occur.
There are many major questions in NASCAR, such as will Monster Energy stay on for the long haul? Will a new manufacturer step up and, if so, with what team(s)? But on the other side of the spectrum, there is much to be excited about.
Remember that whole Gillette Young Guns campaign over a decade ago?
Fast forward to 2018 and Blaney will be the lead face of this new crop of young guns. He’s moving from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske, and he’s already looking like a future NASCAR champion. His appeal is similar to that of Elliott, who each represent both old and new, with throwback looks and clothes that are making fans nostalgic of a time harking back to these two drivers’ fathers.
Let’s take a look at some of the major changes coming to NASCAR’s top-tier division in 2018:
- Chase Elliott is moving from the No. 24 car to the No. 9 car, honoring his father, Bill Elliott.
- Ryan Blaney is joining Team Penske, bringing back the No. 12 car that Jeremy Mayfield, Ryan Newman, David Stremme and Brad Keselowski each drove.
- 2017 XFINITY Series champion William Byron will take over the No. 24 machine for Hendrick Motorsports and compete for Rookie of the Year.
- Alex Bowman will return to full-time Cup Series racing, replacing Earnhardt in the No. 88 car.
- Darrell Wallace Jr. is going full-time racing once again, but this time, it’s at the Cup level with Richard Petty Motorsports. The team will move from Ford to Chevrolet in a new partnership with Richard Childress Racing. He will be NASCAR’s first full-time African American driver since Wendell Scott.
- Erik Jones moves to Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Kenseth in the No. 20 car. Due to his move, Furniture Row Racing is shutting down the No. 77 team.
- Aric Almirola will replace Patrick at SHR, driving the No. 10 car in 2018 and beyond.