Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s departure will be first among group that changed NASCAR

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They walked on to the screen in unison, fresh-faced, eager and so young.

They were the ones who would rock NASCAR’s establishment.

Now, they are ones moving one step closer to walking away.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement Tuesday that he’ll retire after this NASCAR Cup season foreshadows how one of the sport’s greatest collection of drivers will soon leave the sport.

From 2000-02, NASCAR’s rookie classes included Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Earnhardt.

Through a marketing campaign with Gillette, they were billed as the Young Guns. But they earned much more in the careers — wins, championships and accolades.

The six drivers have combined to collect 10 of the last 14 Cup titles and won 228 races, which includes nine Daytona 500s, eight Coca-Cola 600s, six Brickyard 400s and four Southern 500s (Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s).

Sooner than later, they will follow Earnhardt out of the sport.

Matt Kenseth

The 2003 champion, who is 45 years old, is the logical choice to retire soon. When Joe Gibbs Racing announced a press conference recently that involved Kenseth, fans speculated it was a retirement announcement. It was a sponsor announcement instead.

“As long as you guys have known me, if I was going to do something like that, I wouldn’t call a press conference for it,’’ Kenseth told the media that day. “I probably just wouldn’t show up at Daytona and just everybody say, ‘Was Matt racing this week?’ Or I’d send out like a four-word tweet.’’

The Hall of Fame will beckon when he retires. Kenseth, rookie of the year in 2000, has 38 wins, two Daytona 500 victories, a Southern 500 win and a Coca-Cola 600 win.

JIMMIE JOHNSON

The seven-time champion’s contract expires after this season but he’s given no indication of retiring. His next contract likely will take him to 2019 or 2020 and be his final driving contract in the sport.

Johnson, 41, said last month that he expects to have a contract extension announced “before long.’’

He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection when he’s eligible. He scored his 82nd career Cup win Monday at Bristol. He has also won two Daytona 500s, four Coca-Cola 600s, four Brickyard 400s and 2 Southern 500s.

KEVIN HARVICK

The 2014 champion signed what the team called a “long-term” contract extension last year.

“I’m very happy to have my future secure with a team so dedicated to winning,’’ Harvick said at the time.

Another driver headed to the Hall of Fame after his driving career. Harvick, who is 41 years old, has 35 wins, which includes two Coca-Cola 600s and a Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Southern 500 triumph. He also was the 2001 Rookie of the Year.

RYAN NEWMAN

His status was in question until signing a multi-year contract extension in October to remain at Richard Childress Racing.

The 39-year-old Newman won at Phoenix earlier this season. It was his 18th career Cup win. He has a Daytona 500 victory and a Brickyard 400 win. He has 51 poles, which ranks ninth on the all-time list. Newman beat Johnson to win the 2002 Rookie of the Year. Newman also likely will be a Hall of Fame selection after his career ends. 

KURT BUSCH

The youngest of the group at age 38. He won the Daytona 500 this year for his 29th career victory. The 2004 champion also has a Coca-Cola 600 win.

He likely will be the last of this group to retire and join them in the Hall of Fame. If he’s the last of this group to retire, he’ll close the chapter of a remarkable class.

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