Long: Amid anxiety over retiring NASCAR drivers, a new era emerges

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It’s easy to lament where NASCAR is headed with Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring from the Cup series after this season.

Fans have bid farewell to Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards (well, he may return) since last year. Then came Tuesday’s news about Earnhardt.

And it won’t be long before seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and former champions Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick reach the end of their careers.

For long-time fans, this is crushing news. Drivers they have grown accustomed to seeing on TV nearly every weekend from late February to the middle of November are leaving. In comes a new crop of drivers that fans are not as comfortable with or knowledgable about.

Picking a new favorite driver isn’t made on a whim for many fans. If you’re going to pledge your loyalty, one has to be all in.

And that’s why this could be one of the greatest times in the sport for young drivers.

Now is your time Kyle Larson. Now is your time Chase Elliott. Now is your time Ryan Blaney.

Now it is time for all the young drivers to make their mark on the sport, reach out to the fan base and become the leaders who will guide NASCAR for the coming years.

From 2000-02, fans fretted about the transition NASCAR went through. That period brought Earnhardt, Johnson, Harvick, Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch into the series.

They combined to change the sport on the track — with how they raced — and off the track — with how they presented themselves.

Their roles increased as Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and others retired. Many fans worried that the new drivers could never replace their favorites.

But it’s not about replacing. It’s about moving forward. Just as it is now.

No driver can replace Earnhardt. No one can or will be asked to shoulder so much of the sport as Earnhardt has throughout his career.

No driver can replace Gordon, who helped usher in the sport’s most popular era — not bad for a kid who was known to crash often his rookie year.

No driver can replace the cantankerous Stewart, who became a fan favorite for his gruff, tell-it-like-it-is manner and his fearlessness on the track.

That’s the thing. The young drivers just need to be themselves, not someone else.

They also must win. That will grow their fan base and give them a powerful voice for years to come.

They’re starting to gain power.

Consider the drivers age 26 and under. It includes Joey Logano, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Larson, Elliott and Blaney.

That doesn’t even include those in the Xfinity Series, which features William Byron, Ryan Reed, Daniel Hemric and Cole Custer, among others.

And in the Camping World Truck Series, there’s Christopher Bell, Todd Gilliland, John Hunter Nemechek, Harrison Burton and Kaz Grala.

No one could have anticipated that Johnson, who had one Xfinity win before moving to Cup, would go on to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most championships.

Somewhere in this group of young drivers there’s a multi-time champion. Maybe a couple of them. Maybe one who wins more than five championships.

Maybe one who changes the sport in ways one can’t even imagine.

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