This Isn't Your Daddy's NASCAR: Big Name Driver Changes Now More Common

Kelly CrandallSenior Writer IJanuary 20, 2010

Once upon a time, it was crazy to think of a big name driver switching teams.

A time when someone like Dale Earnhardt would end his career in the car that he ran much of it in. Which he ultimately did, just not the way that anyone wished for.

Seems crazy to think of Jeff Gordon driving anything other than a No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, and pretty soon the same could be said for Jimmie Johnson. Thankfully for their fans, they don’t have to think too hard about it because lifetime contacts with HMS will never let such a thing occur.

But it gets the point across.

From year-to-year, when a new NASCAR season would ring in, fans were assured that a few things would be the same: the races would be long, the wrecks would be big, and top drivers would be in the same cars they were the previous years.

Fan tattoos and merchandise were always thankful.

Things, however, never stay the same and over the last few years that has become more and more apparent. The theme of NASCAR should now be: Who would have thunk it?

The first came from Mark Martin, who for 19 years was behind the wheel of Jack Roush’s No.6 Ford. Between 1988 and 2006, Martin had taken that car to victory lane 35 times before starting to dabble in the retirement phase.

He didn't dabble long as he was soon driving the No. 01 for Bobby Ginn, then the No. 8 for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Today he drives the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

However, when thinking of Roush you think of Martin.

Who could ever have imagined that Mark Martin, a Roush driver, would not end his career at Roush-Fenway Racing?

Probably the same people that never thought they would see the day that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would not be driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company that had his name on the door, founded by his late father.

Elliott Sadler summed it up best, “How do you let the biggest name in our sport walk out the door?”

Earnhardt Jr. did after the 2007 season, leaving the family team for Hendrick Motorsports, not just any team, but the enemy as some called it. If leaving a family company doesn’t break the mold, what does?

Sure, drivers will come and go, new faces will join the scene and older drivers will retire with their place in history. Younger drivers like Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson, Casey Mears, AJ Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray, and others have all played musical cars. The difference with those drivers is that they really didn’t make an impact in the cars they were driving.

Of course, their fans will have to take the new merchandise and colors in stride, but none of those drivers have really set their legacy in a car until they get in one for a while and start winning—a lot—and give people something to remember them by.

Crew chiefs swap uniform shirts every now and then, and even sponsors take their turn on the hood, but certain drivers just bring certain thoughts to mind, like Richard Petty and the 43 Petty blue machine.

Things might have been different for him had he switched from team to team.

When Rusty Wallace retired after the 2005 season, he left his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge to Kurt Busch, but any fan will most likely associate Wallace as the driver of that car for years to come.

The same could be said for Dale Jarrett, who called it quits mid-way through 2008.  Even though he was driving a Michael Waltrip Toyota, he is a Robert Yates driver though and through.

When the No. 20 Home Depot car roars past on the track Joey Logano may be behind the wheel and will leave his mark on it after he’s gone, but for now it’s still remembered as Tony Stewart’s car.

Think Home Depot and  Joe Gibbs Racing and you have two championships, 32 career wins and oh, yeah… Tony Stewart.

That was until 2009, when Stewart changed his course of history by becoming co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, now driving a numbered 14 red Chevrolet every weekend. It may take time to get used to, but at one time, it seemed unlikely that the team that created Tony Stewart, the organization that helped make him a household name, would no longer have him as a driver.

Just something for fans to get used to before investing in anymore tattoos.

Don’t take anything for certain when it comes to a driver entering the series with one team, since they may not be with them for too long. For example, the next big change could come after this season, or at least that’s what many are expecting.

Kevin Harvick is rumored to be leaving Richard Childress Racing after the 2010 season when his contract is up. Harvick though, isn’t talking about where he will and won’t be going. Childress is also not giving out too much information. Both are saying they’re focused on this year.

One thing is clear: RCR made Harvick, and the 29 car is Kevin Harvick. Another big name driver that has left his mark on a car and team that may no longer be with them. 

Things have certainly come a long way in NASCAR and things keep changing more and more. Drivers no longer want to be in the same place for a long period of time, and instead of sticking it out, dealing and fixing the rough spots like the older generations, they just go somewhere else.

If there’s one thing that can be taken away from the last 10 years and thinking that certain drivers will never race for certain teams: never say never.