NASCAR is starting to change; some believe it’s for the good, others believe different. However, either way one looks at the state of the sport, it’s going to be completely different over the course of the next five to 10 years.
With a younger, more vibrant generation pushing themselves into the sport, the elder drivers have a lot more to lose. Sadly, they aren’t able to perform at the level that got them to where they are today, but eventually, they’re going to retire.
NASCAR is like a longer version of every other sport. The season is 36 weeks long, plus two non-points weeks and testing. The average driver’s career will likely surpass 20 years. Look at Jeff Gordon — he’s in his 22nd season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and is in the midst of the championship battle. However, even with Gordon’s lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports, retirement may be coming for the four-time champion who drives the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Unfortunately, Gordon isn’t the only driver who may be nearing retirement.
Mark Martin, who left Michael Waltrip Racing so that Brian Vickers could drive the No. 55 car on a full-time basis starting in 2014, has been driving the No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing. Martin has struggled severely in the car, and is reportedly going to be Danica Patrick‘s driving coach in 2014. What does this mean? Well, it seems like Martin’s career is just about complete. It’s possible that he’ll run a few races in the Sprint Cup Series, plus a good chunk of the Nationwide Series and/or Camping World Truck Series schedules for the next few years if he gets the chance to do so. Unfortunately, all of the competitive seats in the sport are being filled in by young drivers who are preparing to become the next “star.”
Another example is Jeff Burton. Burton is still looking for a job for 2014 after announcing in September that he’ll be leaving Richard Childress Racing for Ryan Newman. There aren’t too many jobs left in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series besides a few inexperienced teams that appear to be looking for younger drivers who are more aggressive than some of the veterans.
Chase Elliott will probably replace Gordon in a few years. Gordon may run in the lower series, but it’s more likely that he’ll do what Terry Labonte has been doing and moonlight with a smaller team (or stay with HMS) for a few years. Kyle Larson isn’t going to be the face of the sport while driving for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing unless the team some how gets more competitive. He, nor his fans, will accept a top-20 performance after his rookie year. Larson is going to need to contend for wins in his sophomore year, or else EGR is going to be heavily criticized.
Then, there are some younger drivers that don’t have anything locked up, which plays in the experienced driver’s favor. Parker Kligerman has been extremely impressive in his rookie year in the Nationwide Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Kligerman is making his Sprint Cup Series debut with Swan Racing at the Texas Motor Speedway, a team that wants a younger driver in the car for 2014. They’ve tried out Kevin Swindell and Cole Whitt so far this year, but Kligerman’s resume and talent may surpass the other two drivers.
There are also some Nationwide/Camping World Truck Series teams that have been grooming some young talent, but aren’t moving the drivers up through the ranks. Look at James Buescher, the 2012 Camping World Truck Series champion. Buescher is ready for the Nationwide Series, but blew the opportunity a few years ago. However, now he’s matured, but is the type of guy that would benefit from splitting a ride with Martin or Burton.
Over the next decade, the face of NASCAR won’t be Gordon. It’s not going to be Martin or Burton either. That era is sadly coming to a close. The Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth era is entering what could be the best years of their careers. Now, one would think, how could it get better? Well, just look at this year, both drivers have learned from their mistakes and now they’re nearing perfection.
This new era of drivers is going to slide into the sport just like Kyle Busch did, or how Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is currently slicing his way into the history books. It’s an exciting time for many, but a sad time for others, as some of the most coveted drivers in the sport won’t be around besides in the TV booth.
Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.