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2-Headed Monster: Is It Bad So Many Drivers Are Leaving NASCAR?

Gone are the days when NASCAR drivers would race until they couldn’t find a ride anymore. From Tony Stewart to Kasey Kahne, more and more drivers are calling it quits at a younger age to race elsewhere. The trend leads to this week’s question: Is it bad for NASCAR that so many drivers are leaving?

Come Out (of NASCAR) and Play

Kyle Larson caused quite a stir earlier this summer when he admitted that racing in NASCAR is not his end goal as a driver. What Larson was implying is that he needs the financial security that a successful career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series provides and once he’s made enough money, he will be able to finance his true passion — racing open-wheel cars on dirt.

This is exactly what NASCAR does not need its top stars saying.

The backlash from NASCAR, as well as his own team, was swift and negative. Larson ended up self-imposing a gag order to keep from getting any further grief from fans, sponsors or the sanctioning body. But it isn’t like we can un-hear what he said. He made his true feelings pretty clear with his comments.

When Tony Stewart retired from competition in the Cup Series, he made no attempt to hide the fact that his decision was almost entirely based on three factors. First, he loathed the media obligations placed on Cup superstars. Secondly, he hated the fact that the cars became so aero-dependent as he felt it minimized driver skill and turned them into glorified steering wheel holders. Lastly, he longed to return to racing sprint cars on dirt.

Others have followed in his footsteps of late. Kasey Kahne, while being forced to step away from NASCAR due to medical reasons, has revealed his intentions to get behind the wheel of a dirt car as well. Numerous active and retired NASCAR drivers still make appearances in other series. This does great things to improve the visibility of those tours, but when they walk away because there are greener pastures elsewhere, one begins to wonder how much future star power stock car racing will lose and how difficult absorbing those defections will be.

No matter how you try to call the situation, there are fans who will hear the comments and think Stewart retired because NASCAR stinks and dirt racing is way better. The perception that dirt racing is superior is the real issue here. Many fans already struggle with stages, playoffs, etc. — viewing much of it as gimmicks designed to create drama where there would otherwise be none.

Now, even the participants are saying they want to jump ship because NASCAR is no fun. How can we expect fans to hang around when the drivers are essentially confirming most of the complaints?

I’m not blaming the drivers. They deserve to be happy and race whatever they enjoy. But NASCAR needs to make moves to draw drivers and fans of other disciplines to stock car racing rather than send them running away from it. -Frank Velat

It’s Not One-Size-Fits-All

Racing is a niche sport. Each type — Formula 1, IndyCar, drag racing, NASCAR, sprint cars — is a further subdivision.

Not everyone works equally well at each discipline, as while they all have the same basic goal — going as fast as possible — the methods used to do that can vary greatly and don’t necessarily transfer all that well (just ask any of the IndyCar drivers who tried to switch to NASCAR).

Piloting a rally car through the mud, gravel and jumps on a course is much different than wheeling a midget during the Chili Bowl, which is different than taking a sports car through Daytona International Speedway’s infield.

It isn’t ideal for NASCAR that drivers are leaving to focus on different styles of racing, but I don’t think they ought to be that concerned about it either. Drivers make the most money in the Cup Series, so if they do well enough to run Cup for about a decade and then get bored, okay, they have the money to do that.

Kasey Kahne mentioned that the closed cockpits that stock cars use played a factor in his retirement, which won’t be a problem in sprint cars. He runs his own sprint car team, and why shouldn’t he have fun driving them if he wants to? His competitive career in Cup arguably ended when he went to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.  Then there is his desire to spend time with his son Tanner.

Kyle Larson has made it clear that he’s only racing in NASCAR because it pays, and if he wins a championship, he’ll promptly retire and run the World of Outlaws dirt series. I’m not sure he’ll win a title with his current team, but I can’t see him in NASCAR much past 30.

That doesn’t speak all that well for NASCAR, but it’s Larson’s decision. He grew up racing on dirt, and he had enough talent to switch to asphalt and full-bodied vehicles and compete at the highest level.

Tony Stewart got fed up with the length of the NASCAR schedule and the demands on his time doing sponsor appearances — he just wanted to drive, and everything else drained all the enjoyment for him. (Also, there was the aftermath of the sprint-car accident from New York and the recovery from various injuries that also played a role in his retirement.) He had a lot of other things to focus on, and it was better for him to devote more time to those matters.

AJ Allmendinger will likely be racing sports cars next season, something he does better than NASCAR. Like Kahne, Allmendinger never quite lived up to his potential in the sport and had been a basically-invisible medium-pack driver for the past several years. Eventually, teams lose patience, and that’s the reason why JTG-Daugherty Racing is putting Ryan Preece in the No. 47 next year.

But while these Cup drivers are leaving for other forms of racing, there are even more in the wings like Preece, wanting to race Cup more than anything. Christopher Bell came from dirt racing just like Larson, and he’s stated several times that he’s ready to go Cup racing. He’ll still be in XFINITY next season.

Noah Gragson‘s promotion to JR Motorsports could result in a Cup ride sooner than later. John Hunter Nemechek and Todd Gilliland hope to go Cup racing eventually, and their family history with the sport provides a built-in boost when it comes to fan recognition.

Current young Cup drivers like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney haven’t been super successful due to the excellence of veterans, but they’re very good racers and want to be there. Blaney, in fact, comes from a dirt racing family — his grandfather used to and his father and uncle still do. Yet the younger Blaney races in NASCAR and has rarely raced on dirt.

K&N West driver Hailie Deegan started out in her father Brian’s tire tracks on dirt racing trophy trucks, then decided that maybe NASCAR was a better fit for her.

I don’t really enjoy football, though I grew up obsessed with the sport. It’s ingrained in the culture of where I’m from, so I understand it through osmosis. Racing will never take the place of football in American culture. I also follow hockey, which is considered strange, and I can’t always explain its intricacies when people ask questions, but the teamwork aspect appeals to me somehow. In college, I played a variety of intramural sports, mostly poorly, though I did best at volleyball and Ultimate Frisbee since they fit my skill set better.

Competition is interesting no matter how it’s defined, and if racers feel like they can excel better at a different discipline, they should feel free to pursue it. -Wesley Coburn

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Frontstretch Staff
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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12 comments

  1. “. . . just ask any of the IndyCar drivers who tried to switch to NASCAR.” It’s a bit odd that, in an article that mentions Tony Stewart so much, you would include this comment, without adding that Stewart is the big exception to that. He was an Indycar champion before coming to NASCAR.

  2. The problem with KYLE making these statements out loud is profound. HE IS NOT a private person making big bucks! He is a corporate paid spokesperson…if you will. Who in God’s name and common sense would like a person they invested millions in saying basically, I don’t like it but it pays the bills. He is very arrogant and stupid. Hope his winnings in this series keeps that ginger kid in a private schools. Not cool.

  3. The success of NASCAR is the reason drivers now retire while they are still running well with several good years of driving ahead of them. The success of NASCAR made the drivers rich and they can afford to retire and do the things they want to do. I did the same thing before I retired. I set a financial goal when I was 24 and retired at 55 when I had enough assets to pay my bills and buy the toys I wanted. I am 71 and I retired at 55 and would do it again in a heartbeat. Once you have reached your goal, why keep racing and risk death or injury while having no time to do what you really want to do?

  4. Look, Kasey never lived up to his Hendrick potential for two big reasons: Jason Leffler died andown Hendrick replaced Kenny Francis with Rodden, which hurt badly. Kasey wasn’t a Jeff Gordon in NASCAR, but the guy has numerous accomplishments. Being consistently competitive was over in 2015.

    • might need a decoder ring for that post…

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Once Jason died, Kasey seemed to have started rethinking his priorities and Hendricks taking Kenny was to blow to that 5 Team and then finally Hendrick giving him the junk for equipment, the writing was on the wall… Kasey will be missed, He was loyal to Nascar, his team and his fans.

  5. Every young guy or gal coming up now a days is an aero racer. Dirt cars maybe not so much but let’s face it, from IMCA mods to Winged sprints its all about aero. Pavement cars are worse. Its just a different era.
    I say a super car race from Europe. They appear to use production based cars. Looks like fun.

  6. Nascar ballooned in popularity above what it could ever sustain. The CoT introduction was the point in time when tracks went from waiting lists to empty sections. The decisions made during that timeframe caused the sport to drop back to its former levels of popularity. However, teams grew bigger, R&D became a whole department, and the cost to stay on top was established during those days of great prosperity. This generated a whole group of talented racer millionaires, who earned their top rides by performance, but were paid more for doing less than all the engineers and marketing people on the payroll combined. Good for them… If you win the lotto you don’t give it back, do you? Why would these guys ‘quit early’ or do something they love even more? Uh, because they can. Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, etc quit because they could. Do you think Tony Stewart ever imagined being a millionaire when he was racing karts or midgets as a kid? These guys met most of their goals and decided that earning money for their team to support their income stream was just not as important as preserving their lives as normal people. Any one that has ever been at a PR event with Tony Stewart can tell how uncomfortable that stuff is for him. He’s a different guy in a group of 3 or less. Kyle Larson is no different than a guy that works his butt off in a factory for 8 hours to be able to jump in his boat and go fishing after work. He too is working hard and looking forward to ‘retiring’ to jump in his sprint car and ‘go fishing.’ Its work for these people to do meet and greets, to go to companies and speak to strangers about things they’ve never experienced. Good article.

    • Love your comment John.
      I respect people who make their fortune, walk away from the trough and then live their life the way they want. I almost feel like those that stick around after they’ve made more than they need (in any profession) are greedy, stupid or are addicted to the adulation (especially in a profession that has a high probability of injury). I know that it’s not that simple because everyone is different.
      It amazed me when Edwards announced his early retirement and no one was willing to believe it. Everyone was looking for some kind of conspiracy. That’s how counter it is to our culture and even human nature, which tell us to grab as much as we can as long as we can.

  7. wow……i remember those racers that raced to race, pay check or not.

    when all the big money came into the sport, that’s when it all started changing, the demands on the drivers’ time, hey i’m paying millions of dollars to put you in the car, you will show up and do this. stewart did what he wanted to do, don’t like the constraints he left. now the drivers are always having to be on point cause you don’t have long-term sponsorships, owners are constantly looking for funding so drivers have to be available. perfect case in point was jr running xfinity race in richmond, sponsor obligation and he had to do it for the sponsorship of his teams.

    out of the retired drivers, jr is the only one you really see still doing commericals on tv or even radio or print. they still know the name earnhardt means something in racing circles, but as the years go by, i don’t think jr will have the endurance that the petty name has had for richard.

    money……that’s all it is now, a paycheck, not a vocation or calling.

  8. I understand the money is an enticing and valid everything. However hearing that he is just in it for the money would make anybody with a brain not root for him, passion zero…$$$$$ yes! Buh bye. I support his team and sponsors being pizzed off. I would be! Get lost.

    • I get what you’re saying but how many people stay with a job they might totally hate because the money is good? That’s all Kyle is doing and saying, Can you blame him..