Carl Edwards broadsided the NASCAR industry this week when he announced that he was stepping away from full-time driving, effective immediately, although he would not use the word “retire.”
Quite simply, you could probably count the number of people who knew this was coming on one hand. His departure will leave a void not only at Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR,) although 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion Daniel Suarez is a suitable replacement, but within the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as well.
The sport will now have to absorb the loss of Jeff Gordon (again,) Tony Stewart and now Carl Edwards all at once. It also begs the question of who could possibly be next. The short answer is that none of us have any idea, as this week’s news illustrates, but it’s still fun to speculate.
This article originally was published in January of 2015, and while our list is similar now to what it was then, circumstances have changed for some of these drivers. Let’s take a look, in no particular order.
Jimmie Johnson began full-time in the Sprint Cup series in 2002 and is 41-years-old. He is now the senior driver at Hendrick Motorsports (HMS,) and has now tied both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven championships. His challenge now, and there’s no better team with which to embrace it, is to win the eighth title and establish himself as the best of all time.
Unlike Jeff Gordon, Johnson doesn’t have a lifetime contract with HMS but could easily race into his mid 40’s. Now that he is chasing history, I believe he’ll stay around as long as it takes to earn that legacy.
However, Johnson has a wife and two young daughters. He also has to have taken note of his teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s extensive absence last year after an injury. In many respects, he has nothing left to prove. The eighth championship is quite a carrot to dangle in front of him, however. He’ll catch it, I believe, and then perform the ultimate mic drop.
Yes, you’re reading this correctly. Retirement is on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s radar screen. He’s not ready to be cleared for landing, but the “R” word is in view. Earnhardt Jr. is 42-years-old now, married and perhaps wants to start a family. He has actually answered the question about what he’ll do when he no longer drives in the Monster Energy Cup series (he wants to run for his own team, JR Motorsports, in the Xfinity series a bit.) That has to tell you that he’s thought about it.
The curious thing about Earnhardt Jr. is when will he step away and drive for this own team? The recovery from his concussion last year also has to be on his mind, or whatever is left of it.
One would have to imagine that when he drives for his own team he is going to want to have fun and have success. If that is the case one would also have to assume that he is going to want to make that transition over the next few years.
Ryan Newman is 39 years old and also began driving full-time in the Sprint Cup series in 2002. He had his best finish (2nd) in 2014, but has finished 11th and 18th since then. It would appear that Ryan’s best shot at a title is behind him. Ryan has won two of the sport’s marquee events at Daytona and Indianapolis. Should he win a championship in the next year or so, that would be a fitting way to cap a career, but the clock is ticking closer to midnight with each passing day.
The chase format, as far as we know, is not changing for 2017. Newman has to like the current format, in that it still rewards consistency while supposedly placing a premium on wins. Honestly, that’s his only hope. The Childress organization is still searching for their first win since 2011 and Newman himself hasn’t won since 2013.
Newman also has a wife and two young daughters, and does wonderful charity work. There’s nothing wrong with making those people and those efforts his main life’s work now.
Now in his mid 40’s (44,) Matt Kenseth enjoyed a seven-win season in 2013 after moving to Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR.) This shows that Matt still has the talent and the capability to win. Matt does this so uncharacteristically that he’ll most likely remain heavily-involved in this sport beyond his driving days. He would be an excellent mentor, coach or strategist. He’ll have to evaluate this when his current contract expires as to whether the time is right for such a transition.
In the meantime Kenseth and the No. 20 team will be focused on winning a second title. A second championship could be a turning point for Kenseth and could push him out of the sport sooner. After all, wouldn’t every driver like to retire by winning a championship in their final season?
While Jamie McMurray is only 40, he has been in the Cup series for 15 years. He seems to always be one of those “bubble” drivers each year with regard to will he or won’t he make the chase. He is supposedly in a contract year in 2017, as the last known signing for him was in 2014 and contracts are frequently three, but seldom longer than four years in duration. Unless he can prove that he is a consistent threat to win, it might be time to go back to Kansas and cut the grass.
His team, Chip Ganassi Racing, has struggled to find consistent performance in recent years, but showed some promise late last season with Kyle Larson’s win at Michigan and 10 finishes in the top-10 in 2016. Engines are supplied by Hendrick Motorsports, and are some of the most potent in the business. McMurray also seems to communicate well with crew chief Matt McCall. It is also believed that he has secured sponsorship for all 36 races.
In short, all of the pieces are there for McMurray’s success, but he’s not a young guy anymore, and this can be a brutal business if you’re not producing. Contract years tend to make people put up or shut up. We’ll see which it is in his case.