Dale Earnhardt Jr. will retire after the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, continuing an exodus of the sport’s biggest stars that already includes four-time champion Jeff Gordon, three-time champion Tony Stewart and Columbia native Carl Edwards in the last two years.
Several other prominent drivers — Matt Kenseth (age 45), Jimmie Johnson (41), Kevin Harvick (41), Joplin, Mo., native Jamie McMurray (40), Ryan Newman (39), Kurt Busch (38), Emporia, Kan., native Clint Bowyer (37) and Kasey Kahne (37) — are closer to the sunset than sunrise of their Cup careers.
It begs the question how NASCAR will survive the transition — especially the loss of Earnhardt, who’s won the most-popular driver award 14 consecutive years.
“This sport, as well as every other sport, is cyclical,” Camping World Trucks Series driver Christopher Bell said. “Back in the day, you had Davey Allison and Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. and Bill Elliott, all those guys. Their time came and went. All the sudden, Jeff Gordon was a kid and Tony Stewart was a kid, coming in as rookies.
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“Now, that cycle is turning over again and those guys are getting out. It’s just part of the life we live and the game we play. NASCAR’s survived this far, so I don’t see it being any different.”
In fact, the young drivers see an opportunity, not a problem.
“It’s a good opportunity for a young driver to come in and show what you can do,” said Ryan Blaney, who won his first career pole for Saturday’s Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway. “I looked up to a lot of these (retiring) drivers, but there’s a good wave of young drivers coming.”
For instance, Bell, 22, had 17 top-10 finishes in 23 Truck races as a rookie last season and 19-year-old William Byron won seven times as a Truck rookie a year ago.
Other young talent already has reached the Cup Series, including current points leader Kyle Larson.
Now in his fourth full-time season with Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson, 24, broke through with his first Cup victory late last season and owns five top-five finishes in this season’s first 10 races.
“I’d be alarmed (with the retirements) if you didn’t have what’s going on now,” NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said, pointing to the 2017 points standings.
Behind Larson, Chase Elliott, the 21-year-old son of former Cup champion and Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, sits fourth and Joey Logano, who is only 26 despite having 301 Cup starts and 18 wins under his belt, is fifth.
Blaney (23) and Trevor Bayne (26) also would make the playoffs if they started this week.
“Luckily for the fans of our sport, there’s a lot of talent that’s coming up that are not just racing in Cup right now, but are in the Xfinity Series, Trucks and even a lot more guys that are racing in the short track world …,” Elliott said. “There are a lot of people to pull for. There’s no reason why we can’t find people to pull for as a fan moving forward because there are a lot of great people to choose from.”
Better yet, none of the young drivers seemed overwhelmed by the prospect of carrying NASCAR’s future on their shoulders.
“It’s a really cool time for NASCAR,” Larson said. “I know they may be a little nervous and fans may be nervous what it’s going to be like without Junior, but I think it’s going to be great for our sport honestly.”
Earnhardt is such a fan favorite, Larson believes his retirement might reenergize Cup rivalries as fans recalculate their allegiances.
“I’m excited about the future and I know Dale’s excited about the future and where the sport’s going to go,” Larson said. “Hopefully, we can make him proud, make everybody at NASCAR proud.”
Daniel Suarez — the 25-year-old native of Mexico who inherited Edwards’ No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Cup series — is potentially critical for the sport’s future.
He won the 2016 Xfinity Series championship, becoming the first foreign-born champion in any of NASCAR’s three touring series, but also “brings a whole new fan base to us and a whole new following, which is what the sport needs as well,” O’Donnell said.
The talent doesn’t stop there.
Fellow Cup rookie Erik Jones, 20, won the 2015 Trucks title and led the Xfinity Series with four victories last season, joined Furniture Row Racing’s new second team this season.
Austin Dillon, 26, is a former Xfinity and Truck champion. He qualified for the Cup playoffs for the first time last season.
His younger brother and Ty, 24, is a Cup rookie. The Dillon brothers are the grandsons of team owner Richard Childress.
Finally, don’t forget Chris Buescher, a 24-year-old who made the Cup playoffs as a rookie last season.
Some are destined to become household names, whose eventual retirement will create similar hand-wringing.
“That’s what you work for, trying to be successful and have a memorable career in the sport,” Blaney said. “Maybe, if I’m lucky, we’ll be one of those drivers and I’ll be one of those guys people are talking about trying to replace in 15 or 20 years.”