Did You Notice? … How quickly NASCAR has undergone a changing of the guard? Two more of the sport’s full-time drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth, bid farewell to the sport this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. They’ll be the cherries on top of what has been a mountainous shift towards NASCAR’s youth movement.
Here’s a look at how many full-time drivers have left the Cup Series since the start of the 2015 season.
Cup Series Retirements/Departures
Driver – Wins (Titles)
Jeff Gordon – 93 (4), includes five Brickyard 400s and three Daytona 500s
Tony Stewart – 49 (3), includes two Brickyard 400s
Matt Kenseth – 39 (1), includes two Daytona 500s
Carl Edwards – 28 (0), two runner-up finishes in the championship
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 26 (0), includes two Daytona 500s
Greg Biffle – 19 (0), includes two Southern 500s
Brian Vickers – 3 (0)
Bobby Labonte – 21 (1)*, includes one Brickyard 400
Michael Waltrip – 4 (0)*, includes two Daytona 500s
* – Had already scaled back to part-time
The totals above are impressive: 282 victories, nine championships, nine Daytona 500s, and eight Brickyard 400s. That’s not counting the numerous Most Popular Driver awards Earnhardt won along with the millions in endorsements which faded the second Gordon and Stewart stepped off the track.
Of that group, six drivers were running full-time with top-tier programs. That means a whopping 25 percent of the sport’s best two dozen cars have gone through a retirement transition. It’s as if half the AFC suddenly had starting quarterbacks retire or LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook all left the NBA at once.
It’s a brave new world ahead, one that’s younger and free from the shackles of NASCAR’s recent past. Of the 40 drivers projected to be on the grid next year, only one (Kurt Busch) raced in the 2001 Daytona 500 where Dale Earnhardt passed away. Just Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Newman will have driven full-time during a Cup season without a playoff format.
Those five are the only ones left that remember what it’s like to race back to the caution flag. They’re the small group (plus Kasey Kahne) that raced Cup at the old Rockingham Speedway and ran twice a year at Darlington.
Suddenly, the NASCAR traditions people complain we left behind have truly become a relic of the past. In their place come a whole set of 20-something phenoms like Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Darrell Wallace Jr. that will determine whether this sport lives or dies.
But it’s the departure of Earnhardt and Kenseth that truly closes the book on a generation. For Earnhardt, he’s inextricably linked to that tragic February day in 2001 where the Daytona 500 took the life of the Intimidator. Fighting through unimaginable sorrow, a whole legion of fans switched support from father to son. They cried together (Daytona that July), they celebrated together (2004 Daytona 500), and their driver singlehandedly held up NASCAR’s popularity during trying times.
Then there’s Kenseth, whose 2003 Cup championship many claim sparked the NASCAR playoff system. Winning the third race of that year (Las Vegas) his No. 17 Ford struggled to run up front soon thereafter. In the end, the Roush Fenway Racing driver earned just 11 top-five finishes out of 36 starts. He failed to even lead a single lap in the year’s last seven races. (Kenseth’s season total of 354 ranked 11th overall).
But in a year where top contenders piled up DNFs, Kenseth’s 25 top-10 finishes easily outdistanced Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. Newman, who had the best year of his career (eight wins) could do no better than sixth. As the season came to a close, the sport experienced a slight tick downward in ratings at the same time longtime sponsor Winston was leaving.
Worries about fading momentum had begun. A shrinking base of teams would lead to the advent of start-and-park teams to fill a 43-car grid the following season. But would the same pattern have happened if there was another competitive championship battle like Stewart and Mark Martin the year before?
We’ll never know. But the reality is that as soon as Kenseth put his championship trophy away, a new NASCAR chapter began. The Chase was born while sponsor NEXTEL marched into the picture.
It’s an era inextricably linked to this duo, longtime friends who came into the Cup Series together. On track, Earnhardt got the better of Kenseth coming up the ranks (winning two Busch Series titles) but lost out to his rival long-term. It was Kenseth who won their 2000 Rookie of the Year battle, utilizing consistency even though Earnhardt captured more victories (three to one).
As their careers continued, it was Kenseth racking up the championship and endless playoff appearances while Earnhardt dealt with the rollercoaster of family drama. But in some ways, their careers always seemed to be about even. Both dealt with bad luck and missed opportunities that cost them titles. It was Earnhardt, not Kenseth, who enjoyed more popularity, endorsements, and even got a bit of a retirement tour this year.
Kenseth simply got pushed out the door.
In their place will be a series that’s younger, faced with a challenge of breaking through a crowded national sports landscape. But despite growing up in the age of Facebook, the replacements will struggle to match the social media savvy of Earnhardt. None of these young men have quite mastered the wit of Kenseth at his best during a press conference, either.
Sure, Homestead-Miami Speedway will be about a championship this weekend. But it’ll also be about saying goodbye, cutting the strings, and NASCAR moving on to a bold new frontier.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- One other consequence of Kenseth’s retirement is that Johnson enters next year the oldest full-time driver on the circuit (age 42). Keep in mind Earnhardt Sr. won the last of his seven titles at age 43 before a young kid like Jeff Gordon changed the game. Are we seeing that happen with Johnson a year early? Suddenly, teammate Elliott is running circles around him and the No. 48 team looks old and tired. Crew chief Chad Knaus seemed baffled at how to make their Chevrolet faster in what’s been a difficult year for Hendrick Motorsports. The reality of Father Time is already making 2018 a pivotal year for that program.
- This year has been all about the rise of Martin Truex Jr. His other three opponents are formidable (Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski) but it’s clear that for Truex his window of opportunity is now. The No. 78 has an average finish better than third on intermediate tracks, they lead the sport in virtually every statistical category and owner Barney Visser is recovering from a heart attack. Add in Truex’s longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, and her battle with cancer and you’ve got one heck of an emotional edge. But you also have to think, for Truex, the time is now. At age 37, facing cutbacks to one team at Furniture Row Racing next season plus the rise of Elliott and other young talent Truex may not get a second chance.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.