What's the Right Age to Quit NASCAR?
What's the Right Age to Start?
Jimmie Johnson’s announced retirement plans either were no surprise or a mild shock, but they certainly will give fans a topic to debate over the winter: how does JJ stack up as a candidate for “greatest of all time?”
I liked Richard Petty a lot back in his day, and always was huge Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan, in part because I’d seen him come up through the late model ranks in North Carolina. Nevertheless, I’d have a hard time arguing that either was in some way obviously better than Johnson, whose wins took place in arguably a much more competitive era. This, too: until his current “losing streak,” Johnson had NEVER had a Cup season in which he didn’t win a race. Petty and Earnhardt had two each, plus the former’s sad streak of eight winless seasons at the end of his career.
Johnson – a good time to plan your exit
Johnson’s decision is a good one. He’ll be 44 when he’s done, which puts him in the same boat with most of the sport’s other recent stars. In no particular order, some other last full seasons: Tony Stewart was 45; Matt Kenseth, 46; Jeff Gordon, 44; Bobby Labonte, 49 (after 10 straight winless seasons); Dale Jarrett, 49 (2 wins in his last 4 seasons); Rusty Wallace, 48 (2 wins in last 5 years); Terry Labonte, 47 (1 win in last 5 years, then 10 years of winless part-time competition); Darrell Waltrip, 53 (last win at 45); Jeff Burton, 46 (last win at 41).
It’s hard to find a relatively recent driver other than Harry Gant, Bobby Allison and Earnhardt Sr. who remained serious victory threats when they were older than Johnson will be when he hangs up his helmet.
But here’s where my thoughts eventually turned when I heard Johnson’s announcement. When he gets out of #48 for the final time, he will be greeted by a car owner who is 27 years older than he is. The irony of this era in which NASCAR seemingly can’t wait to get younger and younger drivers into Cup cars is that all those kids are driving for probably the oldest group of car owners ever.
Here are those numbers: Championship owner Joe Gibbs turns 79 on November 25; Roger Penske, who had all three of his cars finish in the top 10, will turn 82 four days after the Daytona 500 in February; Rick Hendrick is 70; Jack Roush is 77, and Richard Childress is 74. The only teams placing cars in this year’s Cup top 10 with owners under 70 were Stewart-Haas (Tony is 48 and Gene is 67) and Chip Ganassi (61). Even Bob Leavine, whose team might become a major Toyota player, is in his 70s. Leonard Wood and Richard Petty are in their 80s.
The Champ and the Coach
This has concerned me for a while now, and it has been one reason I’m so negative about the charter system, which effectively keeps younger owners from breaking into the sport. You can argue that the charters add value to these teams, which in turn makes them attractive to investors who might wish to continue the Gibbs/Penske/Hendrick/etc. legacy, but so far, there’s no evidence to back up that theory. NASCAR officials say pretty plainly that much of what they do is intended to keep current owners on board, but while owning a NASCAR team seems to be a pretty good fountain of youth, there’s got to be a limit.
The NASCAR brain trust obviously thinks it’s moving things in the right direction. My read is that the sanctioning body may have painted itself into a corner. I guess we’ll see who’s right.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
While I was on RacingReference.info looking up that information about driver retirements, I took a few extra minutes to gather mud to sling at another favorite target: the driver development system that brings us very young drivers with little or no name recognition and few fans.
First, I looked at all those drivers I discussed above (when they retired from fulltime racing) and looked at when they won their FIRST Cup race.
There were a couple of youngsters: Jeff Gordon at 22 (after having been a major league sprint car winner since before he was old enough to drive on the street) and Terry Labonte at 23, but most of the others were a bit higher: Stewart, Kenseth and Darrell Waltrip at 28; Rusty Wallace at 29; Jeff Burton at 30; Bobby Labonte at 31, and Dale Jarrett at 34. For the record, Earnhardt Sr. also was 28. Experience obviously counted for something.
Jeff Gordon began winning in Cup racing at a tender age, but most top drivers spent a little more time making it to the top and were a few years older when the victories started coming.
It’s a little more mixed with today’s drivers, reflecting the trend toward bring them up younger. Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer all collected win #1 in their mid to late 20s (as did Jimmie Johnson), but Joey Logano won at 19, Kyle Busch at 20 and Chase Elliott at 22.
Still, the average age of this year’s winners was 34.3, and that’s as high as it is because the average age of this year’s multiple race winners was 39. Maybe it’s because the four biggest winners – Busch, Truex, Harvick and Hamlin – drove for Joe Gibbs or Stewart-Haas, but maybe it’s because their experience paid off more often.
By the way, circling back to Jimmie Johnson, he did manage one superlative this year: he was the oldest driver to finish in the Cup series top 20. He’s 82 days older than Harvick.
One last note on driver ages. (and don’t doublecheck my math on this one, because I think I fried my brain doing all this and might be a day or two off) The oldest Cup champion in the series’ 71-year history was Bobby Allison, who was 45 years, 11 months and 13 days old when he drove in the final race of the 1983 season, at the end of which he officially became the champ. That gave him a slight edge over Lee Petty, who was 45 years, 7 months and 174 days old when he took the crown at the end of the 1959 season. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was third oldest when he won the title in 1994.
Bobby Allison was past most drivers’ retirement age when he won the Cup championship in 1983.