Truex turns 42 years old in June 2022 and is in his 17th full-time season running in the sport’s top division.
Even if Truex does extend his contract, it seems unlikely he’ll race beyond the 2023 season (when he’ll turn 43). That follows the trend of stars like Jeff Gordon (44), Tony Stewart (45), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (43), Matt Kenseth (45) and Jimmie Johnson (45), all of whom retired in the same age range. Carl Edwards (37) and Kasey Kahne (38) were surprise departures that left the NASCAR grind even sooner.
It’s a far cry from a generation ago, when NASCAR drivers would often hit their peak in their early 40s. Dale Earnhardt Sr. won four of his seven titles between the ages of 39 and 43. He was runner-up in the standings at 49 years old, building toward a potential record-setting eighth title before the 2001 Daytona 500 tragedy.
Bobby Allison won his only NASCAR title at 45, the oldest champion in NASCAR history. Dale Jarrett, in 1999, won his lone NASCAR Cup title just before turning 43. The examples from late last century go on and on.
Success also spilled over into victory lane. Why this topic came up for me is listening to a replay of MRN’s Dover Motor Speedway broadcast from September 1991, part of 51-year-old Harry Gant’s streak of four straight Cup wins. The following year, Gant was in contention for the championship entering the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway. 50-year-old Mark Martin won five races with Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, then nearly won the Daytona 500 four years later.
But Martin, it appears, will serve as the end of an era. It’s the other side of this youth movement, where yes, all but one race this year has been won by drivers under 30. That’s where we need to look on the flip side, too, where sheer numbers of older drivers are lagging: there’s now just one full-time Cup driver running over the age of 45 (46-year-old Kevin Harvick). Only three others: Truex, Kurt Busch (43) and Denny Hamlin (41) are over 40.
Compare that to Jarrett’s 1999 championship year, where five of the top 10 drivers in points were age 40 or older. It’s a significant shift for a sport that used to struggle to put 20-somethings in competitive rides during the 1980s and 1990s.
That’s also one reason drivers like Martin, Gant and Darrell Waltrip retired well into their 50s: their Cup careers didn’t take off until around age 30. In Gant’s case, his rookie season came at 39 years old, almost two decades later than someone like Joey Logano or potentially Ty Gibbs. That left them with less mileage on their careers and more motivation to hang on into their 50s.
There was also another subset of drivers (Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte come to mind) that hung on part-time into their 50s, long after they’d lost the ability to stay competitive. For them, the paychecks of NASCAR during its peak of the mid-2000s through early 2010s was just too good to pass up.
As an example, Elliott won $2 million during a 20-race schedule with Wood Brothers Racing in 2007 where he failed to earn a top-10 finish. That still topped his 1988 season earnings by nearly half-a-million, a year where he won six races and the series title.
2001-08 was an era where the sport was awash in cash and driver salaries were skyrocketing. We don’t see that much anymore, as the youth movement has come paired at the perfect time with a downshift in primary sponsorship spending.
There’s less incentive now for drivers to pad their wallets late in their careers, especially if they’re kicked to the curb into less competitive rides (Ryan Newman, at 44, was the latest in a series of drivers recently who stepped away rather than run around at the back and collect a paycheck).
It all adds up to a generation that, with the notable exception of Harvick, are peaking about a decade earlier. Johnson won his five straight championships between the ages of 31 and 35. Kyle Busch won his titles at 30 and 34. Jeff Gordon earned his fourth and final Cup trophy when turning 30.
Will we see a shift back to the 40-something bracket anytime soon? Unlikely, as companies continue to look for drivers within the 18-to-34 age range to promote their brand. There will always be drivers like Kyle Busch, who are exceptionally talented, looking to push it in Cup instead of moonlighting elsewhere. But they’ll be the exception and not the rule.
I will say this trend provides an opportunity for other racing series to prosper. Kyle Busch has talked of going to the Camping World Truck Series and winning a championship there before fully retiring. Drivers like Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter have kept rides in Trucks well into their 40s.
With that division awash in both teams and sponsors once again, could we see more veterans scaling back to run there when their Cup career is over? Back in the 1990s, there was a brief push in that direction, with drivers like Joe Ruttman, Jimmy Hensley and Chuck Bown, among others. And SRX has already experienced success in highlighting aging stars: Newman and Biffle are among those running the series full time this summer.
A senior tour, whatever series grows it, has appeal for both race fans and the drivers themselves. Drivers like Kahne, running World of Outlaws, have already shown they’re still competitive. They’re just tired of the grind within a 36-race Cup schedule.
There’s an opening for whatever series figures out a way to keep them racing.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- Of the eight Cup teams that have been hit with four-race suspensions for losing a wheel on the racetrack, only one (Hamlin) is currently in playoff contention. Not a single one is inside the top 20 in Cup points, showing struggling race teams’ mistakes aren’t just limited to the driver’s seat. That said … eight of these incidents is eight too many for a safety concern that continues to loom large some three months after the Next Gen car revealed it to be a major problem. NASCAR really needs to put their heads together can come up with a better way to mitigate the risk of a lug nut falling off.
- As I mentioned at CBS Sports, what’s up with Team Penske? Logano is the one who worries me the most, paired with arguably the best crew chief there in Paul Wolfe. A 15.5 average finish this season is his worst since aligning with Penske in 2013; he’s on pace to lead fewer than 150 laps this year. Wasn’t the 31-year-old supposed to take the leadership reins in Brad Keselowski’s absence? Keselowski (70) actually has double Logano’s laps led total 11 races in.
- I’ve really come around on the Darlington Raceway throwback weekend being in May rather than on Southern 500 weekend. It gives the second date a special feel all on its own and another way to sell tickets in an area oversaturated with NASCAR events and one of the sport’s smallest markets.
About the author
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.
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