Numbers have their own precision. They tell the story, in many cases, or parts of one in most. Let’s play a little numbers game, shall we?
What do the numbers eight, 254, 1,048 and 1,774 have in common? This is not a trick question, or a brainteaser. It’s an object lesson.
The numbers listed above represent NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series titles, victories, top-five results and top-10 finishes among Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart,
Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Danica Patrick, all recently retired or otherwise gone from series competition over the last two calendar years.
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Four of the titles are Gordon’s and three belong to Stewart. Both of those drivers, who earned 142 victories during their careers, exited the scene at the end of 2016. Gordon originally stepped away in 2015, only to step back in when Earnhardt Jr. lost half a season to a concussion. Stewart continues to own his own team, Stewart-Haas Racing, but no longer drives his cars.
Kenseth, the 2003 champion — and perhaps the main reason NASCAR has a playoff these days — was left without a seat for 2018 when the music stopped at Joe Gibbs Racing, despite winning the penultimate race of his career at Arizona’s ISM Raceway in November. That gave him 39 victories for his career, which could theoretically be rebooted at anytime over the next couple of seasons.
Earnhardt stepped away in November with 26 career victories and the sport’s largest fan base along with a near-record 15 straight NASCAR Most Popular Driver awards. Recently married, he and wife Amy are awaiting the arrival of their first child.
Biffle, the longtime Roush Fenway Racing stalwart, earned 19 victories before leaving after 2016. Edwards, who got his start at Roush and finished with JGR, stepped away in a surprise announcement at the end of 2016. He left with 28 victories and a couple of near misses in the championship battle, losing both, ironically enough, to Stewart in the season’s final race in 2005 and ’11.
Patrick, the most high profile female racer in many generations, will run the Daytona 500 this month and the Indianapolis 500 in May before hanging it up for good.
Nature abhors a vacuum, but that is what NASCAR has at the moment. Gone are the most popular driver in recent history in Earnhardt and two multiple champions in Gordon and Stewart, who were in the same zip code as Earnhardt in terms of fan support.
Kenseth had his backers, too. Edwards was no slouch when it came to fan support and Patrick breathed a bit of life into a sport that was experiencing a bit of an identity crisis.
Drivers retire. It’s the nature of the game. You can’t be a NASCAR driver forever because the season is nearly 11 months long and it takes a toll after a while. It’s that way in all things, not just racing. And, just like in all things, there are drivers who come along and take their places, earning their own numbers and their own places in the pantheon of the sport.
Question is, who is going to do that?
With the departures of Gordon, Stewart and Kenseth, the Cup Series driver roster owns only 12 series titles, with seven of those belonging to Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson is still part of the game and he shows no sign of slowing. Should he win an eighth title, and that’s always a possibility when he and Chad Knaus are around, that might change, but for the nonce, he’s in the game.