Earnhardt Jr.'s retirement leaves hole in the soul of NASCAR

One of NASCAR's most popular drivers will be hard to replace

Dave Buchanan
April 26, 2017 - 8:47 am

Photo: Peter Casey - USA TODAY Sports


Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s announcement that he is going to retire was not the biggest surprise in the world, but it still sent shock waves through the sport that might be felt for a generation.

His, now, imminent departure adds to the list of high profile drivers that have retired in recent years. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards were some of the biggest stars in NASCAR, but now they are on the sidelines. That leaves NASCAR without some of its most popular drivers of the last 15-20 years at a time when it could use all the attention it can get. Ticket sales and television ratings have been down for nearly a decade (in its defense, I will say the TV ratings part is not as big a problem as some feel it is because viewership is down across the board for the medium). The sport has also gone through dramatic changes during that time to try and appeal to a wider audience, but now many in that audience may find it hard to recognize some of the names on the track. 

Earnhardt Jr. is the sport's most recognizable name. He has more than two million followers on Twitter and is a 14-time most popular driver. Much in the same way his late father connected with the masses with his hard scrabble background, Earnhardt Jr. connects to the modern fan with his easygoing personality and adept use of social media. I was amazed on Monday after he had crashed out of the postponed race at Bristol that he was already on Periscope talking to fans about what went wrong with the car while the race was still going on. 

Will his legion of fans continue to tune in and attend next season when he's not competing? We've already seen a sneak preview of what an absence of Earnhardt could mean. When Dale Jr. missed the second half of last season due to a concussion, it had a reported affect on ticket sales. His fan base is largely made up of the old-school style of fans that have been left behind by the sport's constant changes that have come down in recent years. 

There are plenty of young drivers that displaced fans can get behind. Two of those drivers are currently leading the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings in Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. Larson is having a breakout year with finishes of first or second in five out of eight races this year. His sprint car background makes him popular with the grass roots racing fans that are leaving NASCAR for their local tracks and regional touring series. Elliott is the son of one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, Bill Elliott. He is also a Hendrick Motorsports teammate of Earnhardt Jr. as he took over the #24 car following the retirement of Gordon. Both drivers were named by Earnhardt in his press conference on his Tuesday as drivers he is excited about for the future. There's plenty of other up and coming talent in the sport as well, including Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez, William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. 

Earnhardt's retirement may only be the midpoint in the wave of aging drivers that will leave the sport in the near future. Former champions Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson are all over 40 and may be hanging up their helmets very soon as well.

NASCAR will have to find a way to connect the fans of these veterans drivers to the new crop of talent before it's too late.

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