It was the name of a 1985 song by George Jones talking about a generation of country music stars including Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty stepping away from the spotlight. Jones’ question was soon answered with a new generation of stars like George Strait, Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Travis Tritt.
Around that same time, NASCAR stars Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough were on the final laps of their careers. But a new group consisting of Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Mark Martin emerged to lead the pack.
It’s obviously another of those times in the sport.
After next year’s Daytona 500, the Monster Cup Energy Series will have lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in less than a three-year stretch.
The group accounts for 235 career wins, 154 career poles, eight series championships, seven Daytona 500 wins and 14 Most Popular Driver awards.
Last April, veteran motorsports journalist Tom Jensen put out a list of 15 drivers who had left the Cup Series since 2010. His list also included former NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte, 21-time race winner Jeff Burton, 19-time race winner Greg Biffle, two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip and two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya.
It’s truly a huge loss of star power for a sport which has seen a dramatic decrease in attendance and television ratings.
Also consider that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, an 83-time race winner, is 42 years old, same as Earnhardt Jr. If he retired now, the rest of the field combined would have 263 wins between them.
Behind Johnson, the active drivers who rank next in career wins are: Kyle Busch (43), Kevin Harvick (39), Denny Hamlin (31), Kurt Busch (29) and Brad Keselowski (24).
Next is a trio of drivers all with 18 career wins — Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne — followed by current series champion Martin Truex Jr. with 15 wins. No other driver in the sport has double-digit victories.
The bad news for the 18-win group is neither Newman in the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet nor Kahne in the No. 95 Levine Family Racing Chevy are likely to multiple races next season.
There is a great opportunity for new stars to emerge and the most likely candidates are second-generation star Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney.
One can also look at one of NASCAR’s most popular events, the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The last two August races have been highly entertaining and that’s had little to do with the retiring stars.
In August, Kyle Busch and Larson waged in an epic battle throughout the race’s first stage. Busch won that battle and then had to hold off another emerging star, Erik Jones, in the final stage to ultimately win the race. The 2016 race featured Harvick fending off the challenges of Logano in the closing laps.
In the case of country music, new generations of fans are watching today’s acts like Chris Stapleton, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan and Little Big Town. For the most part, older-generation fans still prefer the sounds of the musicians they grew up hearing.
NASCAR has no such luxury with an aging fan base, much like that in baseball, and a younger generation not as much into the car culture. To their and other motorsports credit, they’ve tried engaging young fans through technology and other applications.
Still, it ultimately comes down to putting a good and exciting product on the track and the drivers’ ability to connect with the fans.
All options must be on the table and NASCAR’s decision to run the 2018 fall race at Charlotte on the “roval,” a combination of the oval track and the infield road course, is looking outside the box in hopes it will add some excitement.
For many older fans, there has been too much looking outside the box in recent years. A suggestion would go back to the simple, single-lap qualifying format. The points system is entirely too complicated for the average fan, but at this point, another change would probably be met with resistance.
With all the issues NASCAR faces, the biggest question still remains who’s going to fill their shoes.