First, Jeff Burton last year. Then, Jeff Gordon this year. Now, Tony Stewart next year.
Three of NASCAR’s biggest stars and most popular drivers have or will soon be hanging up their helmet and firesuit for the final time.
If long-time NASCAR fans haven’t realized it yet, here’s a big clue: We’re seeing the start of perhaps the biggest driver transition in the sport’s history.
Within the next five years – maybe a few more or maybe a few less – we’ll likely see even more of the sport’s biggest (and aging) names calling it quits like Stewart said he’ll do after the 2016 season.
There are several drivers already over 40 years old still in the Sprint Cup Series. While most are still having some modicum of success, all they need is to look at the struggles Stewart has had this season as a 44-year-old to realize time will soon be catching up to them, as well.
Greg Biffle is closing in on 46, and you can see the horrible season he’s had – the worst of his Cup career.
Biffle is just finishing the first of a three-year contract. By the time he reaches 48, my guess is Biffle will call it a career, particularly if the remaining two years on his contract are similar to what he’s done (more like what he hasn’t done) in 2015.
Matt Kenseth is 43, but things have been pretty good for him in 2015. But can we say the same thing about 2016 or 2017?
Kevin Harvick is 40 and will essentially become the torch-bearer for Stewart-Haas Racing once Stewart steps down after next season.
Well, let’s clarify that a bit:
Because of Stewart’s struggles this season, as well as 2013 and 2014, Harvick has already been the torch-bearer since he joined SHR last season and went on to win the company it’s second championship in four seasons.
But I think you understand what I mean: Once Stewart steps down, Harvick will become the face of SHR – not Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick, or Stewart’s handpicked replacement, Clint Bowyer – for however many more years he’ll remain behind the wheel (my guess is he has maybe five more years, tops).
And then there’s the one driver everyone is wondering just how long he’ll keep battling the ovals, short tracks, and road courses in the Cup series.
He’s the one guy that likely every major NASCAR official including Brian France and Mike Helton are dreading the day he calls it quits (frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Helton retires first).
Namely, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Junior turns 41 next week. If he once again falls short of a championship in this year’s Chase, how many more times will he continue to try for that elusive first Cup crown?
With each passing season, Earnhardt gets closer and closer to going through a career without even one Cup title. For all we know, that may potentially wind up being part of his eventual legacy: he tried so hard, yet never could win the championship he coveted the most.
But let’s get back to Stewart for a moment.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected the man nicknamed Smoke to call it a career so soon. I thought for sure he’d try to emulate his idol, the legendary A.J. Foyt, and continue racing well into his 50s.
But the toll of a broken leg in 2013, as well as the Kevin Ward, Jr. tragedy last season, clearly had some type of significant impact on Stewart.
Even though he said during this past Wednesday’s press conference announcing his retirement that those episodes did not contribute to his decision to hang up his firesuit after 2016.
At least several times in his illustrious career, Stewart has laughed and said he’d have to be dragged out of a race car and be forced to quit, that he wouldn’t go voluntarily.
But obviously his mindset has changed.
And with that change, I’m sure a lot of Stewart’s fellow drivers are reevaluating their own future plans. Earnhardt has said he’d like to race until he’s 50. But once he gets married and potentially has kids, his own mindset may change as well.
Or, if NASCAR’s most popular driver the past 12 seasons goes through another three or four more season and doesn’t get any closer to that championship, could Earnhardt maybe retire by 45 or 46?
Any way you look at it, NASCAR today is going to look a lot different five years from now. Who will be the next Smoke, Junior, Biff, and so on?
Who will replace them?
Or perhaps a better question is, yes, we knew they’d eventually retire, but how do you replace guys that have proven throughout their careers that they’re irreplaceable?
Jerry Bonkowski writes for NBCSports.com’s NASCAR Talk and MotorSportsTalk. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.