For many fans, NASCAR is going to have a significant identity problem in 2016 and 2017.
When Speedweeks begin at Daytona less than two months from now, it is going to be very strange to see the No. 24 Chevrolet—and yet Jeff Gordon will not be in it.
After nearly a quarter-century (23 seasons, to be precise) of piloting that legendary car, Gordon has handed over the keys for good to Chase Elliott.
It’s going to take several races at the very least for many of us to watch the 24 and not inadvertently say, “Here comes Gordon” or something of the like.
Heck, it may take a couple years for some of us. Remember when Nextel took over for Winston in 2004 (and then Sprint came around a few years later)?
There were still several drivers that unconsciously would say “Winston Cup” when they meant “Nextel Cup.”
Heck, it was just a few months ago that I was interviewing a NASCAR Hall of Famer—whose name I won’t mention to save him the embarrassment—and he twice slipped in “Winston Cup” into the 20-minute conversation.
That’s only 12 years later!
There’s an irony with where I’m going with this column: No sooner will we finally (hopefully) get used to saying Elliott instead of Gordon than we’re going to be faced with the same dilemma when Tony Stewart retires after the 2016 season.
After 17 legendary seasons of his own, the man known as “Smoke” will soon join Gordon permanently on the sidelines.
Stewart has obviously had a stellar career, with nearly 50 wins and three Cup championships.
In fact, here’s a bit of trivia that very few people ever seem to get. And if you don’t believe me, pull out the record book:
Stewart’s three NASCAR titles make him the only driver in NASCAR history to have a Winston Cup (2002), Nextel Cup (2005) and Sprint Cup (2011) championship trophy.
No one will ever take that away from him.
Which brings us back to how NASCAR and Stewart-Haas Racing will go on post-Tony. Clint Bowyer has already been hired to replace Stewart in the No. 14, beginning in the 2017 season.
Stewart will continue to be involved in the day-to-day operation of SHR, perhaps even more so after he stops driving.
The retirement of Gordon and Stewart will definitely impact NASCAR. Unscientifically, I’d say the two of them combine for probably close to 25 percent or more of the NASCAR fanbase.
With them retired, their respective fanbases will have to find other drivers to cheer for. For Gordon, some will likely gravitate naturally to Elliott, not only because he’s taking Gordon’s place but also because he’s the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
But what happens when Stewart retires? I’m not so sure his millions of fans will automatically attach themselves and their loyalties to Bowyer, who hasn’t won a race in more than three years (and likely won’t win one in his one-year fill-in role in 2016 at HScott Motorsports).
If anything, I would have thought Stewart and SHR would have gone the route Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports went, namely, hire a promising young driver who could take over and be in the No. 14 for the next 20 or so years.
Among the names of young hot shoes that immediately come to mind are Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace and even someone already within the SHR organization: 17-year-old Cole Custer, son of SHR vice president and general manager Joe Custer.
Instead, SHR decided to go with Bowyer, who is 36 and may have another five good years left in him.
Or not, based upon his lack of success and performance the last three seasons.
Stewart stepping out of from behind the wheel may actually be a blessing for SHR—Bowyer notwithstanding—because he can spend even more time conveying his experience and knowledge to make his entire operation even stronger.
He doesn’t need to help Kevin Harvick much, but Stewart could certainly help Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and, of course, Bowyer.
NASCAR finds itself in a very difficult position with Stewart’s and Gordon’s retirement.
As simplistic as it may seem to believe their longtime fans will find other drivers to cheer for, there’s also a real threat that those same fans may simply lose interest and stop following the sport because “their drivers” are gone.
That is a very legitimate concern and worry. At the same time, I’m encouraged by all the young drivers on the horizon who will eventually find their way up to Sprint Cup in the next three to five years or so.
Yes, Gordon and Stewart will be missed, but at the same time, I can’t wait to see what the new kids on the block will do and whether they can be the next generation’s Smoke or Wonder Boy.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski