1. One more time around
It doesn’t seem so terribly long ago that we were a few days out from Daytona, with a whole year of promise ahead. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t terribly far in the past, but suddenly, irreversibly, the days have grown cold as autumn blends into winter with a cold breath. Fall this year really felt like fall, not like some years where even as drivers were racing toward a title and immortality, the promise of the next year, maybe a better year, was always tantalizingly close at hand. Of course, 2018 is really not far around that next (left-hand) corner, but so much is changing that it lacks the familiar comfort of offseasons past.
The turnover of the seasons this year is a turnover of generations, the last one peeling away as the next one breaks through underneath. Drivers as much as anything define an era of the sport, and this era is in its own autumn, and its winter won’t give way to the inevitable spring but rather to a new dawn altogether.
2. On his own terms…
Watching with an honest eye, Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t return to the sport the same driver following a concussion suffered last summer. He’s never been an overly aggressive driver, but the abandon wasn’t there, the fearlessness stripped away too. It wasn’t really a surprise that he decided to step away, not more than it was a surprise that he decided to come back for one more year in the first place.
Had the injury and the doubts won out, his career would have been forever an unfinished story. This way, it was ultimately dictated by the man we all watched grow up before our eyes, in some ways too soon, in others not so very much at all. He wrote his own ending to a career that’s defined by much, much more than the numbers. The time is right, but it still seems far too soon.
3. …Or not
But Earnhardt is one of the lucky ones. On the other side of that coin are a handful of other drivers who gave no less than everything they could every week but, despite that, don’t get to decide when to climb out of the car one last time and walk away. At the forefront of that group is Matt Kenseth.
In some ways, Kenseth’s career is inextricably intertwined with Earnhardt’s. They came through the ranks together with the kind of good-natured rivalry that youth allows, hoping to best each other as much as the rest of the field. Both won as rookies, Kenseth went on to win a title while Earnhardt never quite reached that peak. Ultra-consistent, Kenseth was that guy who was just suddenly there at the end of races, week after week, scoring a top five or a top 10 seemingly out of nowhere. That kind of driving made him a champion at a time when it was about being there at the end of every race, all year long, and there was very little luck involved.
It’s fitting that he and Earnhardt will end their careers together, one more race in cars looking so very much like they did all those years ago when they had all those years ahead of them. But Kenseth didn’t choose his own finish line, at least not in the way Earnhardt could. He could only choose to walk away rather than to toil in a car that even he couldn’t make contend for wins. That’s a hollow victory at best. Kenseth and those other drivers who gave everything they had and some they didn’t for too many years for it not to count earned the ability to make the call themselves. Their leave-taking doesn’t feel right.
4. Shining bright
Meanwhile, the turning of the page is coming at the right time for the sport. As the sport changes itself to appeal to a younger generation, the drivers strapping into the cars in the last year or so are talented, personable and aggressive enough to make a statement on track. Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are at the forefront, but Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and William Byron will make their mark in the sport.
As Jimmie Johnson defined the closing era, someone else will rise to define the new one. It’s a cycle as old as the sport, every sport really, and one that will continue as long as sports do. It’s their turn to step into the spotlight now, their story to pick up and write. Hopefully, they’ll make a good, long one.
5. When did we get so much older?
I can’t help but feel like a piece of me will ever remain in this time that we can’t hold onto much longer. We’re about the same age; Kenseth is a few months older than I but in the ballpark. But the thing is, it doesn’t seem that long ago that a brand new day came to the sport and it was drivers like Earnhardt and Kenseth at the helm. I saw their careers begin, along with those of Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Casey Mears… and now, I’ve seen them all end. Was it really so long ago?
Watching the painfully touching thank-you from Earnhardt’s first Cup sponsor, Budweiser, I can see the youngsters living the dream I once had and never quite reached. At the same time, for a moment, those years were stripped away and we were all young again, with all those years ahead. Somewhere along the line, I blinked, because it’s much later now. Where did that time go? How quickly the hours have flowed past, over us all. I know I have some time left to go and laps left to turn, but suddenly what seems like yesterday is so very long ago.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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