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