For athletes, retirement is a Goldilocks question: Too early? Too late? Or just right?
Personal and health crises aside, no competitor wants to leave a sport while he believes he can still win. But neither does he want to be the past-their-prime athlete who overstays his welcome.
Racecar drivers are athletes. But the calculus of when to hang up the firesuit is much different than, for example, a sprinter who must push their body to the highest level of human performance.
I think Kevin Harvick got it just right.
It’s not because of age
Harvick, who turned 47 at the end of last year, was the oldest regular-season driver in 2022. Jeff Burton retired at age 47. Jeff Gordon retired at 45. Ryan Newman ran his last race just short of 44.
It’s not that older drivers don’t win. They just don’t win as often.
Drivers age 47 and older have won 29 Cup Series races1. The last time it happened was in 2009, when Mark Martin did it.
Drivers 46 and older have won only 50 Cup Series races — but Harvick is responsible for two of those wins. If any driver is going to go against the trend, it’s Harvick.
There’s no reason to believe Harvick can’t win in 2023.
Quantifying ‘too early’ and ‘too late’
Retirement discussions focus on age because it’s a quick and simple statistic. But a better measure of “too early” and “too late” is how many races a driver runs between his last win and his last race.
Only drivers who have won races qualify for inclusion in the calculation. I restricted the dataset even further by requiring each driver have at least 10 career wins. Harvick is an elite driver and, as such, should be compared to other elite drivers.
I counted races between last win and retirement rather than years because some drivers ran three or four races a year for a couple of years after their last full seasons.
Elite drivers before 1976 ran fewer than 60 races after their last win.
Buck Baker was the first exception. He tallied 138 winless races before retiring in 1976.
Benny Parsons ran an even 100 races between his last win and his last race in 1988.
Buddy Baker drove the same number of winless races as his father did before retiring: 138.
The numbers go up from there. Richard Petty didn’t win any of his last 246 races. Darrell Waltrip went 265 winless races before retiring.
Bobby Labonte ran the most winless races between his last win and his last race: 363. But Labonte is the outlier.
Since the mid-2000s, elite drivers have run mostly fewer than 200 winless races before retiring. The table below summarizes the numbers for elite drivers who retired in the last seven years.
In the worst case — if Harvick doesn’t win a race in 2023 — he will have run 48 winless races before retiring. In my view, leaving fans wanting more is always preferable to a once-champion driver posting an average finishing position in the high teens.
The non-quantifiable reasons for ‘just right’
The current crop of drivers is open about the challenges of juggling responsibilities as husbands and fathers while racing full time. One need only see the gleam in Harvick’s eye when he talks about son Keelan and daughter Piper.
Making the choice to step away earlier rather than later is easier today because drivers have many more options post-driving career. Early drivers didn’t make the kind of money that would allow them to retire. They opened car dealerships or pursued other business opportunities.
Today’s drivers plan for a second act — and they start early. Harvick is a prime example.
He’s run (and closed) a racing business. He owns a personal management company that represents drivers, UFC fighters, country music stars and golfers, among others. He is part of a group that just acquired the CARS tour.
He’s demonstrated his ability to bring his racing knowledge to fans in a fun and accessible way. With more drivers interested in (and capable of) becoming broadcasters than there are openings, drivers have to take opportunities when they come available.
Harvick has reached his “just-right” moment.
1 From 1960 to 1971 (excluding 1968), NASCAR lumped in the Daytona Duels with the regular-season races. To more accurately compare earlier and later seasons, I exclude those races from the regular-season count.