Kasey Kahne unexpectedly send out his Dear John letter to the racing world on Thursday (Aug. 16), announcing his retirement from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at the end of 2018. After 15 seasons, one of the original young guns of the early-2000s NASCAR youth movement is calling it a career at the ripe old age of 37.
Come again? 37? Jeff Gordon didn’t start kicking around retirement until after he hit 40, and even then, he ended up coming back again a few months later to drive in relief of Dale Earnhardt Jr. for a few races. What is driving this rash of retirements the past few years? Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, both multi-time champions, pushed on through their early 40s, Stewart’s last few years being tumultuous ones. Earnhardt walked away while he could still walk straight, and Matt Kenseth returned after Jack Roush reached out earlier this season. Kahne now joins the likes of Carl Edwards as drivers who opted to leave while they had more than a handful of seasons ahead of them.
In the ’60s and ’70s, drivers would often retire early, but that was due to effects of injury and the toll taken on their bodies with primitive safety and restraint technology. The actual stock cars of the day transferred the impact to the driver, with a helmet that may or may not have done much more than prevent their hair from catching on fire as quickly. 10-15 years ago, a driver wouldn’t think about stepping away until well into his 50s. The environment was a bit different, mind you; the sport was still riding the wave of millennium TV and sponsor involvement, and a handsome living could be made posting decidedly average results.
Today, the NASCAR landscape is a different environment. The big-money incentive to live out of a bus 10 months a year doesn’t stretch as far, and unless you’re bringing some money or a sponsor to the party (or both), you might be watching with everyone else on Sunday. Drivers today also don’t have to race as long. Kahne was one of the most sought-after talents on his way up through the XFINITY Series and then Cup, so much so that Ford tried to sue him after he left to join Ray Evernham’s factory-backed Dodge effort in 2004. Between those two series he had amassed almost $80 million in winnings before posting purse figures stopped being commonplace after 2015. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports for 2016 and 2017, coupled with a Brickyard 400 win, it’s safe to say Kahne has done quite well for himself and simply doesn’t need to race anymore.
That’s not to suggest it’s always just about the money.
His current ride with Leavine Family Racing was essentially a one-year, HMS-backed effort. It allowed him to race for one season and still collect his earnings while not have the stigma of being forced out by a younger driver. With the rumor mill in recent weeks centering around the Nos. 41 and 1 teams, one name that wasn’t bandied about as being in the mix was Kahne. Given lack of top ride interest coupled with a schedule the drags on for almost two months too long, it probably wasn’t that hard a call for the defending Brickyard 400 champion to exit gracefully and on his terms.
Will this trend continue? Given the current crop of drivers, you can start connecting the dots quickly. Jimmie Johnson, who turns 43 next month, very well could be the next driver to exit. With championship No. 8 on the line and Lowe’s leaving this year, his name has popped up as of late as suggested name of who’s next. Chad Knaus signing a two-year extension might also point to the seven-time champion retiring, possibly tied with The Intimidator and The King title-wise.
The decision by some of the biggest names in the sport over the course of the last few years to retire may help shape the future of the sport. Do we really need to be racing 36 weekends a year, with an additional two exhibition races? Would ratcheting things down to 29 or 30 races as it was in the early ’90s find that sweet spot between scarcity of supply and over-saturation? Might that help keep more big-name drivers that help promote a series in the seat longer and not burn out the talent? As Jack Roush once commented, “Well, cows burn out farmers, too…” with regards to what motivates a competitor to keep going or hang things up.
The new youth movement is great and is providing something new (at a low cost) for fans to talk about. It seems to work OK in college football with fresh faces every few years, but will that model work for motorsports? In the past it was dollars and dislocations that helped steer the decision of when to hang it up. Now a pillowtop mattress and three-day weekend seems to be the deciding factor. It’s hard to put a price on freedom or happiness, but being able to hang it up at 37 and chart your own course isn’t a bad problem to have, either.
Save your pennies and max out the 401k, kids.