The new wave of talent in NASCAR is younger than ever. So is the current wave of retirees.
Forty used to the be age when drivers are hitting their peaks. Now it’s a time when drivers consider moving to the television booth, a tractor or a rocking chair.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be 43 when he hangs up his helmet at the end of the season. He plans to devote his golden years to being a husband and owner of his Xfinity Series race team.
“You’re wondering why I reached this decision, it’s really simple,” Earnhardt said. “I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms.”
Greg Biffle, 47, went into TV after last season. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, both 45, also are retired. Carl Edwards, now 37, left to spend his time planting soybeans on his Missouri ranch and playing father and husband.
Since 2006, nine drivers 40 or older have combined to win 63 of the last 325 races. That compares to 64 combined victories by Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt after their 40th birthdays.
At 45, Matt Kenseth was the oldest fulltime driver in last Saturday’s race at the Kansas Speedway. There were only four fulltime drivers 40 or older – Kenseth, Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson – at Kansas, along with Derrike Cope, 58, and Carl Long, 49, who make infrequent appearances.
There were 14 drivers 40 or older at the 2006 Daytona 500.
There are many reasons why drivers are leaving at a much younger age.
Unlike generations before them, most were quickly able to amass wealth that will sustain their lifestyles long after their retirements.
The posted career winnings of Edwards, Biffle, Gordon and Stewart is a combined $466.2 million.
Today’s generation of drivers have far more demands of their time. Sponsor appearances keep them on the road as much as, if not more, than time at the racetrack.
“I told [wife] Amy I might slip off and run a 40-lapper at Hickory one night,” Earnhardt said. “So, if I’m missing on a Saturday night, she might know where I’m at.
“But other than that I don’t have any plans.“
Earnhardt Jr.’s problems with the effects of at least three concussions – the last which forced to him miss 18 races a year ago – has drivers thinking about their health long after the sport speeds past them.
“I can stand here healthy, and that’s a testament after all the racing I’ve done and all the stupid stuff I’ve done in a race car,” Edwards said. “That is a true testament to NASCAR, to the tracks, to the people who have built my race cars, to my competitors, and to the drivers who have come before me who haven’t been so fortunate.
“Having said that, though, it’s a risky sport. I’m aware of the risks. I don’t like how it feels to take the hits that we take. I’m a sharp guy and I want to be a sharp guy in 30 years.”
Earnhardt Jr. is convinced the new generation that includes Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Blaney, will quickly take the lead as the older guys fade away.
“In my history of being around the sport, there’s kind of always been these little gaps in between everything that cycles, whether it’s fashion or drivers or cars or whatever,” he said. “It never really is a seamless transition from one to the next. I think that these guys that are coming in, they’re really sharp and smart about how to utilize social media, how to engage with fans.”
Suarez moved from Mexico six years ago to chase his dream as a NASCAR driver. Now that he’s finally a rookie in the Monster Energy Cup Series, the heroes he knew are gone.
“I moved to the United States watching Carl Edwards, watching all these guys that you just mentioned, Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, and now that they are stepping away for different reasons. It’s kind of sometimes hard to figure out,” Suarez said.
“But eventually that is going to happen for every single driver out there. It’s just a process. Really no one wants this to happen, but it will happen one day.”
For the current generation, however, that day is coming sooner than expected.