It happens in every sport. There comes a time when seemingly a spate of stars age out, and the world is left to wonder who will replace them—or if they are, in effect, irreplaceable.
So it is with NASCAR.
The time is not yet at hand, but over the next five to 10 years, some of the greatest drivers NASCAR has ever seen will be reaching retirement age. Will there be an irreplaceable void left behind? Is it a crisis in the making for a sport that is already struggling to keep its current fans happy while finding ways to bring in new ones?
Rest easy, folks. Help is on the way and the sport should be OK.
But first, let's examine the list of superstars who likely will age out within the next decade. It is admittedly quite an extensive list of impressive names.
Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is currently 43. Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon is 42. Both have experienced health issues recently—Stewart is still recovering from a badly broken leg suffered in a sprint car accident last August, and Gordon has been dealing with back issues.
Gordon even broached the possibility of retirement recently, telling Dan Gelston of The Associated Press (via Yahoo News) that the sharp, shooting pain he experienced in his lower back in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway could lead to it.
"I can tell you, if that happens many more times, I won't have a choice," Gordon told the AP and other media outlets in a group media interview at Dover International Speedway.
Others who are likely already on the back end of the prime of their driving careers include Greg Biffle (44), Matt Kenseth (42), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (39), Kevin Harvick (38) and, yes, even six-time champion Jimmie Johnson (38).
Many of these guys show no signs of slowing at this point in their careers, despite their advanced ages.
Johnson is the perfect example, but Earnhardt is also enjoying his best season in a decade in 2014. Kenseth is coming off arguably the best year of his long career, and both Gordon and Harvick look like title contenders this year.
That's why these guys are sticking around for so long and aren't likely to retire anytime too soon. Some drivers simply are getting better with age, not worse, as they pile up the experience and realize that not only can they still get it done like the younger guys, but in many cases they can get it done even better.
The sport, while inherently dangerous in its nature and therefore never completely safe, is nonetheless safer than it has ever been. With the enormous advancements in safety brought about in large part by the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, there have been, in the last 14 years, virtually no major drivers who have had their careers cut short by injury or even death. Those facts give drivers less pause to continue their careers in a sport where speeds often exceed 200 mph.
Sponsors also like having the older, experienced guys around—many major sponsors have invested millions in building brands around certain drivers. That arrangement is lucrative for the drivers and the teams they drive for, and it keeps the sponsors happy, so change there is sometimes difficult.
Those are some of the reasons the older guys are sticking around longer. In earlier days, Hall of Fame driver Ned Jarrett admitted he retired at age 34 because he wasn't certain his reflexes would allow him to continue driving competitively into his 40s. He was a family man who didn't want to push his luck.
Jarrett retired not long after watching his good friend, Fireball Roberts, perish because of complications from injuries suffered in a fiery wreck at Charlotte Motor Speedway. According to the book The Wildest Ride, Roberts had confessed to Jarrett only days earlier that he, too, planned to retire early because of the dangers of the sport and because Roberts had been offered more money than he could ever make as a driver to be a spokesman for a major beer company.
Now, these guys can make millions both driving and pitching products on the side. There is no need or incentive to quit one to pursue the other.
But here is the really good news for followers of the sport who may be concerned that too many stars will begin aging out over the next five to 10 years: They won't all quit driving at once, and there is plenty of help on the way.
Current Cup stars such as Joey Logano (24), Kyle Busch (29) and Brad Keselowski (30) are only now approaching the prime of their careers. There is another group of slightly older drivers, including Denny Hamlin (33), Carl Edwards (34), Kasey Kahne (34), Clint Bowyer (35) and Kurt Busch (35), that have plenty left in their fuel tanks too.
And then there is the next wave. It includes current promising Cup rookies Kyle Larson (21) and Austin Dillon (24), as well as younger drivers in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series like Chase Elliott (18), Ty Dillon (22), Darrell Wallace Jr. (20), Ryan Blaney (20) and others.
So rest easy, NASCAR fans; the sport appears to be in capable hands for years, even decades, to come.
Unless otherwise noted, all information for this article was obtained firsthand by the writer.
Joe Menzer has written two books about NASCAR, including The Wildest Ride, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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