Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Retirement blues

These are hardly the palmy days for NASCAR, which is going through the sort of pains you go through when you're transitioning from Completely Unsustainable Success to Still-A-Success-But- Not-Like-Before Success.

That it's also transitioning, retirement by retirement, from one generation to the next isn't helping any.

And so the move from organic to inorganic racing, i.e., from 400-mile races to contrived three-130-or-so-mile-races-in-one. Stage racing is NASCAR's way of keeping Generation OCD interested, as if Generation OCD is going to stop looking at their phones, anyway. Besides, it's too much like math. By the time you get done distinguishing between stage points and race points, your buddy's distracting you with a text  -- OMG Danica just signed my shirt (smiley emoji) -- and you're saying, "Ah, whatever. Let's go finish off the beer."

That's bad enough. But you're also losing the attention of the previous generation, what with all the aforementioned generational transitioning.

It's not enough, after all, that the last two years have seen Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart hang it up. Now the transition is commencing in earnest, with the news today that Dale Earnhardt Jr. his ownself will be retiring at the end of this season.

Gordon and Stewart walking away took out a couple of significant fan bases. But Junior's is the fan base in NASCAR, and there'll be no replacing it. He's the last prominent link, after all, to Dale Earnhardt Sr., the most iconic driver in NASCAR history and the man who built the sport into a national brand. Now his kid, a possible Hall of Fame racer in his own right, is getting out, too.

So what's left? Jimmie Johnson, the Busch boys and a bunch of kids?

Maybe Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson blow up into something big, or Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski become icons in their own right. But is Martin Truex Jr. ever going to be Dale Jr.? Will the Dillon boys, Ty and Austin, become the next Busches? Will an Erik Jones or a Daniel Suarez ever reach the stature of a Gordon or Stewart or JJ?

Someone surely will, because someone always does. But it's not going to happen tomorrow.

This is the problem NASCAR faces now, and it's not helped by the fact it should  have been ready for Junior's bombshell. He is, after all, 42 years old, not 32. He also sat out a good chunk of last year with a concussion, his third in four years. So maybe NASCAR should been looking at that, and then looking at what's happening in the NFL, where more and more players are started to hang it up in their 20s. And maybe a few alarm bells should have begun to ring, albeit softly.

In any case, today is not the day of days for NASCAR. As very few have been lately.

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