RICHMOND, Va. — In the vernacular of NASCAR racing, this exact moment in history could perhaps be best described as one of those best-of-times/worst-of-times deals.
First, the worst-of-times breakdown.
Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion and an enormously popular driver, retired for good after a brief comeback last season.
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So did Tony Stewart, a three-time champion.
Carl Edwards unexpectedly pulled the plug on a stellar career in January, shocking the NASCAR community.
And worst of all, after missing the entire second half of the 2016 season while recovering from a serious concussion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. already has announced his intention to retire at the end of 2017.
This, after the 14-consecutive-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver posted just one top-10 finish in the first eight races of the year. Earnhardt has not led a single lap since the Daytona 500.
There are those who would have you believe Earnhardt’s departure will be a dagger through NASCAR’s heart.
“Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement could deal another blow to NASCAR,” read a headline in the Charlotte Observer earlier this week.
The paper went on to quote Todd McFall, a Wake Forest sports economist, who told the Observer, “The Earnhardt name is irreplaceable in NASCAR. It’s a really tough blow for NASCAR, and for the fans who follow (Earnhardt) closely.”
All of that is mostly true.
No one sells tickets or t-shirts or die-cast cars like Earnhardt does. No active driver moves the needle the way he does. And, yes, his absence unquestionably will be felt in both a bottom-line way and in some subjective ones, too.
No doubt about it.
Now, the best-of-times half of the deal.
NASCAR has never, ever had a deeper crop of phenomenally talented young drivers.
Kyle Larson, who won the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Richmond on Saturday, has had a breakout year, winning once, finishing second four times and leading the points in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Larson, who grew up racing dirt tracks in California, not only has the talent to win, he has the swagger, too.
“I feel like I’m the last true racer,” Larson said Friday at Richmond. “I would love to race any type of vehicle, whether it’s in a circle or a straight line or a road course, I don’t care. I just feel like I think like (Mario) Andretti and (A.J.) Foyt and Tony Stewart, like I feel like I’m in the same category as them. They would race anything every day of the week.”
Then, there are guys like Chase Elliott, son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, and his fellow second-year, second-generation driver Ryan Blaney.
Elliott, who replaced Jeff Gordon in the iconic No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is second in points and has come to close to winning on several occasions. Both he and Blaney have finished as high as second.
In the Toyota camp, there is a pair of tremendous rookies in Erik Jones and Mexico’s Daniel Suarez.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, has set up a driver development program working in close conjunction with his allies at Team Penske and Ford Motor Co.
Behind the current crop of Cup young guns the NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series are loaded, too.
And all the young talent coming up has an opportunity to connect with fans of some of those drivers who are leaving.
“Given the retirements of Junior and Jeff and Tony and Carl, I think what’s most important is we don’t let those fans go, that there are other drivers for them to latch onto,” said David Wilson, Toyota’s racing boss in the United States. “I think it’s very important that Junior and Jeff and those guys continue to talk to their fans and make sure that they coach them up — that this sport is still great entertainment and there are other great young drivers coming down the pike.”
And what those young drivers need to do to be build fan bases is to do follow one of Earnhardt’s key attributes: Be authentic.
“I think it’s very simple – it’s just being yourself,” said Suarez. “I think every single driver out there in the garage has different personalities. Dale has his personality; Kyle (Busch) has his personality; Jimmie Johnson has his personality; I have my personality; and everyone is different. When every single driver can go out there to be himself, I think that’s very cool, and the fans like that.”
Social media can be a powerful tool, especially helping younger drivers connect with younger fans.
“I think fans like to see that, especially away from the race track,” said Blaney. “They like to see what kind of person you are. I feel we are trying to pump that out. I like it. It can be your best friend or worst enemy and I have been on both sides this year.”
The bottom line is this: NASCAR is in a period of profound transition and it will come with growing pains and setbacks as the next generation of stars establishes itself.
But this much is certain: There will be new stars and new heroes for fans to latch onto, just as there was after guys with names like Petty, Pearson, Allison, Yarborough and Waltrip hung up their helmets.
It’s how NASCAR has gone on for generations and it will go on again. It always has.