There is a real possibility that in the coming days or weeks, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart will announce his retirement from driving. Should it happen—and we’re not suggesting it should or it will—his retirement will open the door to a flood of questions about the future of other drivers of his age and era and about the future of the sport.
And who are those “other drivers"?
Most of these drivers entered the NASCAR ranks while in their late teens or early 20s and have enjoyed 15 to 20 year careers in the sport.
Five years from now, how many of them will still be behind the wheel?
Gordon has already admitted that he’s plagued with back problems that could signal an end to his driving career. Burton has stepped back from a full-time driving career and into the broadcast booth with NBC Sports, though he's returned to the track as the substitute driver for the still-absent Stewart. Biffle and Kenseth recently signed new deals with their current teams, but for how long will they continue to race?
As for the rest, ask them how much longer they’ll be racing, and you’ll likely get something like “until they pry my fingers off the steering wheel.”
The time is coming when these drivers and others will have to make way for the youth movement that is exploding within the ranks of NASCAR.
The crop of young drivers that has entered the top tiers of NASCAR competition in just the past three years has been remarkable. Most have shown talent and poise beyond their chronological age. And some of them have last names that are familiar to longtime race fans.
Back in the summer of 2011, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson were all but unknowns to NASCAR fans. So too were the Dillon brothers—Austin and Ty, ages 19 and 17, respectively. How about a pair of Ryans—Blaney and Truex? Or Darrell Wallace or Jeb Burton?
These young men represent the new breed of NASCAR drivers. Some are second-generation speedsters whose racing lineage can be traced back to having had their diapers changed in the backseat of the family’s station wagon in the infield of a race track.
There is a generational shift occurring in NASCAR, and the potential retirement of Stewart would be the first of many dominoes to fall.
For sure, there are some from this new breed who may have been able to get a leg up in racing because of their last names, like Elliott, Blaney and Burton. It was natural for them to go into the family business. Others, like Larson and Wallace, have been able to make it on sheer ability alone.
But their talent is unquestionable, and they represent the future of NASCAR. They have shown themselves to be worthy of their current rides and often something even better, perhaps the next rung up the ladder.
Growing up with a father who was one of the most popular and admired drivers in the history of NASCAR made it easy for Chase Elliott to find a role model. If your dad also happens to be a two-time Daytona 500 winner and Cup champion, it’s likely that he’ll be able to teach you a thing or two about being a good racer, along with being a good human being.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott admits that he’s probably more of a help in guiding his son outside of the car than anything else.
“Just being able to watch him evolve as a person, as an individual, and how he fits in, sitting back and watching how he interacts with the fans, is what I enjoy the most,” the elder Elliott told an audience at his Hall of Fame announcement in May.
The elder Elliott’s best advice for his son doesn’t have anything to do with how to drive the car.
“I’ve told him to go out and have fun and the rest will all come,” he said.
As a kid growing up in Southern California, Kyle Larson’s parents took him to his first race before he could walk. Maybe that’s why it seems like he’s more comfortable sitting behind the wheel of a race car than when he's being interviewed on television.
The Dillon brothers grew up around racing and did go to race tracks while still in their diapers, because that’s where their dad made his living. It’s also where their grandfather, Richard Childress, made his mark as a legendary team owner for some of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history.
Childress will be the first to tell you, as he’s told me several times over the years, that his grandchildren didn’t get everything handed to them. But what they did work hard to get was the best he could give them.
It must have been pretty cool for a young Ryan Blaney to be able to tell people his dad was a champion race car driver who also happened to race in NASCAR. Like Elliott, Blaney had the kind of role model growing up that made it natural for him to follow in his father’s footsteps. Dad Dave was a World of Outlaws champion.
“It's definitely really special, of course, carrying on that family tradition,” Ryan said in an interview in 2012. “My grandfather raced and my dad followed in his footsteps. And I’m following my dad.”
Once you’ve met Darrell Wallace Jr., it’s easy to understand why he became the first African-American driver to win a national touring NASCAR race in more than 50 years. His drive to be a winner and succeed in a sport where he found few others like himself gives you no doubt that he’s destined to set more firsts in his racing career.
After you’ve seen the fame and excitement that comes with winning stock car racing’s biggest race, it makes a compelling attraction for a young boy. Jeb Burton was all of 10 years old when his father, Ward, won the Daytona 500 in 2002. He’s not yet found the right organization that will take advantage of his talents, but when he does, his natural talent will evolve.
These are just the standouts from a growing wave of change within the NASCAR driver ranks. There are several more just like them who’ve shown themselves to be worthy of notice, including Dylan Kwasniewski, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman and Justin Allgaier.
Looking ahead five years, names like Gordon, Johnson, Biffle and, yes, even Earnhardt may be gone from the roll call of Sprint Cup drivers. In their place will be those drivers with names that are familiar, especially to those who live in the part of the country that NASCAR calls its roots, the South.
“You look around the garage and see some of the young faces coming through and how talented they are,” former Sprint Cup and current Nationwide Series driver Regan Smith told Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News earlier this season. “It’s very promising for our sport. It shows how bright the future is with what’s coming down the pipeline.”
Are any of these young drivers future Sprint Cup champions? It would be bold to make that kind of prediction this early in any of their careers. However, the level of talent already being displayed by a handful of these wunderkinds makes it easier to postulate as to their future in NASCAR.