From the Daytona 500 in February to the last checkered flag of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, the world of left turns – with an occasional right – keeps everybody on the edge of their seats. While the on-track action keeps eyes peeled on the asphalt, the discussion, and headlines generated away from the competition result in plenty of water cooler talk.
The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season was no exception, as there were lots to talk about right from the beginning. As we close a chapter on another year, POPULAR SPEED is going to reflect upon the five most significant storylines in a series of articles.
The first of those touches upon one filled with emotion – retirement.
Over the past couple of years, fans have walked many of their favorites walk away from the sport. In 2015, Jeff Gordon hung up the helmet, while Tony Stewart walked away from NASCAR competition in 2016. This past season was no different, with three more big names calling it quits.
After missing most of the second half of the 2016 campaign healing from a concussion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to the track this year. But in April, he announced that the 2017 season would be his last full-time campaign. The announcement was significant, considering the third-generation racer has been considered the leader for the sport, winning the Most Popular Driver Award the past 15 straight years.
The good news for fans in helping the adjustment period is that Earnhardt has stated he will run at least one NASCAR XFINITY Series event next season and will be in the broadcast booth for the second half of 2018 with NBC. At least during a time of trying to see where their loyalty rests in the sport – whether remaining a fan and tuned in, or finding another driver to cheer for, they will still get to connect to their leader of JR Nation.
In November, Matt Kenseth revealed he would be stepping away from the sport as he was unable to find a ride for 2018 after being let go from Joe Gibbs Racing in replace of Erik Jones. It is sad that a guy who can still get the job done, as evident by his win at Phoenix Raceway, is being forced out of the seat over youth and dollars. It once again brings up the conversation that fans have debated for the past couple years now of how much talent versus money plays into the equation.
Lastly, Danica Patrick dropped the last domino when she stated at the season finale that the 2017 campaign is her last full-time, and she will run the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 in 2018 before retiring. Arguably, she has not had the best statistics as compared to other drivers. However, her impact on the sport goes beyond that.
Each week, little girls look up to her as a role model to possibly enter the sport themselves one day. How much will that affect these ladies moving forward? Talented female drivers are coming up through the ranks, such as Natalie Decker with a full-time ARCA deal for Venturini Motorsports, but is that enough to continue the diversity movement that Patrick helped build upon?
With three of the most prominent names stepping away – five in the past three years, some have begged the question – what happens now with the sport?
This period isn’t the first time drivers of this magnitude have walked away from NASCAR in groups, with each of those retirements sparking a new era. The sport survived when Richard Petty hung up the helmet, and when Dale Earnhardt died. So can it do so once again? Absolutely.
There are plenty of veterans still behind the wheel, continuing to add to their career numbers with personalities to carry us forward. Competitors like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are just to name a few.
Beyond those, we have a young crop of drivers are beginning to establish themselves on-track, while drawing fans to them with their personalities through social media and appearances.
The next biggest storyline discussed in the series touches upon that, with the youth movement of the sport.
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