NASCAR Stars Whose Time to Retire Is Fast Approaching
Pop quiz: What do Jeff Gordon and the soldiers at London’s Buckingham Palace have in common?
They both signify a changing of the guard.
When Gordon, 43, announced last week that he was stepping aside as a full-time driver in the Sprint Cup Series after the 2015 season, it was more than just about retirement.
Rather, Gordon was the first salvo that was fired in what will likely be a barrage of driver retirements in the next five to 10 years.
Some may walk away from NASCAR earlier, some later. But the fact is pretty clear: They’re going to walk away sooner or later.
And when they do, we’ll begin to welcome in tomorrow’s stars of NASCAR, the young kids like Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney and others who will become the sport’s biggest stars for the next generation or two.
Before we get into the list of full-time drivers on the Sprint Cup Series whose retirement time is approaching—be it fast or slow—we also need to point out the ages of a few other drivers who will only run a few races this season.
They’re the semi-retired guys who will likely be fully retired in the next year or two or three.
Former Winston Cup champ Bobby Labonte will turn 51 in May. Team owner and two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip will turn 52 in April. Road course specialist Boris Said will turn 53 in September.
And Ron Hornaday Jr., who will race a part-time schedule in Sprint Cup this season after a lengthy and successful career in the Camping World Truck Series will turn 57 in June.
One other driver to note: Jeff Burton, who has moved on to a TV analyst role for NBC, drove his last race this past season at the age of 47.
And let’s not forget the oldest active driver in NASCAR, Morgan Shepherd, who will be 74 in October.
Here’s the list of six drivers who are or will be at least 40 this year, as well as how long we think they’ll remain behind the wheel and when they’ll retire:
The defending Sprint Cup champion turns 40 in December. Kevin Harvick has kept himself healthy and actually looks several years younger than he really is.
You might say he’s aged gracefully, and that could potentially allow him to have a longer racing career than some of his fellow 40-somethings.
When he’ll retire: Harvick has the competitive fire and drive that we expect him to drive until he’s at least 50. That means we’ll have “Happy Harvick” to cheer for and appreciate for another decade…not to mention how many more championships he can still earn.
Tony Stewart, the man nicknamed “Smoke,” turns 44 in May.
He’s admittedly had a rough time the last two seasons, first with the sprint car crash he was involved in in August 2013, and then last year’s Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy.
What’s more, Stewart failed to win at least one race in a season in 2014 for the first time since he came to NASCAR in 1999.
This season will be a very pivotal year for Stewart. If he has another season of struggles performance-wise, he might start counting the years that he has left behind the wheel.
Sure, there are some people who think Stewart will be like Morgan Shepherd and drive on into his 70s. But from a realistic standpoint, Stewart is somewhat of a perfectionist.
The last thing the three-time Sprint Cup champ wants to do is try to hang on and live off his past laurels.
If he knows he’s not getting the job done, he’ll likely be the first to say he’s done.
When he’ll retire: We see Stewart going three, maybe four more seasons.
Greg Biffle is the elder statesman of full-time Sprint Cup drivers. Biffle turns 46 in December.
Having just signed a new three-year contract renewal last year that took effect in 2015, Biffle is likely locked in for three more years with Roush Fenway Racing.
But after that is anyone’s question.
Biffle still would love to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win all three of the sport’s biggest championships. He won the Camping World Truck Series title in 2000 and the Nationwide Series in 2002.
But Biffle is still seeking that elusive Sprint Cup championship. He came close in 2005, finishing second, but hasn’t come close since then.
When he’ll retire: By the time his current contract expires, Biffle will be 48, going on 49. If he doesn’t earn that Cup title by then, we don’t see him still racing in the series by the time he’s 50.
Matt Kenseth will turn 43 in March.
The final Winston Cup winner in 2003, Kenseth has had an outstanding career in NASCAR. But admittedly he’s entering his 16th full-time season in the Sprint Cup series.
How much longer can Kenseth go? If he continues to have seasons like he had in 2013, when he won a career-high and season-high seven wins, he could go on for another decade.
But if he continues to have years like he had in 2014, when he failed to win a race but still managed to have a decent regular season due to uncanny consistency, you have to wonder how long he’ll stick around.
When he’ll retire: Kenseth is entering his third season with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015. Most NASCAR contracts last three years, so he may be in a contract season. If he renews, which is likely, that’ll put him at 46 when another three-year deal would expire in 2018. At that point, Kenseth may say he’s had enough.
Hard as it may seem to believe, Jimmie Johnson will turn 40 in September.
That’s right, old six-time is going to hit the big 4-0. Although given how much he’s gotten into triathlon training in the last year or so, he probably has the body and the physical conditioning of someone in his late 20s.
Johnson is still in pursuit of title No. 7, which would tie him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most championships won.
And if he does get No. 7 this season or in the next few seasons, Johnson will still be young enough to try and break the record and gain No. 8—and maybe No. 9 and No. 10 in the process.
That would all but put him out of reach for any future driver to equal his career.
When he’ll retire: Given the great shape he’s in physically, Johnson won’t be retiring any time soon in our eyes. Honestly, we can see him be one of those very rare individuals who can still be very competitive into their 50s, much like Mark Martin. That gives Johnson 10 years to break Petty’s and Earnhardt’s record.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The most popular driver in NASCAR for the last 12 years will turn 41 in October.
And with Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming off arguably the best season of his career from an overall perspective, one has to wonder how many more seasons Junior can sustain at that level.
Winning four races in a season for the first time in a decade, Earnhardt had the kind of campaign that his fans wish he could have had every year during his first 15 seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.
Yes, that’s right, Junior has already logged 15 years in NASCAR’s highest division.
Unfortunately, many of those other years lacked consistency, performance and wins.
Still, we’ll play devil’s advocate and hope Earnhardt can win three or more races in 2015 and potentially get to the final championship round.
When he’ll retire: If he ever wins that elusive first Sprint Cup championship, Earnhardt could very easily go out on top. But at the same time, he’s a competitor who, if he won his first, would like to come back to win a second. Plus, with JR Motorsports coming into its own, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Junior one day turn what has been primarily a Nationwide Series organization into a Sprint Cup operation. Bottom line, Junior retires by 48, if not sooner.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski