Ernie Irvan, a Cup Series competitor from 1987 to 1999, logged 15 victories for team owners Larry McClure and Robert Yates that included the 1991 Daytona 500.

On Aug. 20, 1994, Irvan was involved in a crash during practice at Michigan Int’l Speedway. Irvan returned to drive the final three races of 1995 and, miraculously, scored two victories in 1996 and another in 1997. Five years to the day after the life-threatening crash at MIS, Irvan suffered another nasty spill at the two-mile race track, prompting his retirement.

Popular driver Rick Mast left the sport in 2002 due to lingering complications from carbon-monoxide poisoning.

In 2000, three-time Cup Series champion Darrell Waltrip retired after collecting 84 series victories while driving for DiGard Racing, Junior Johnson and Associates, Hendrick Motorsports and Darrell Waltrip Motorsports. Waltrip then built a huge fan following during 20 years in the FOX Sports broadcast booth. He retired from broadcasting earlier this year.

“This is 60 years of my life I’ve devoted to this sport one way or the other and ever since I was 12 years old, I’ve been holding on to something,” Waltrip said in April. “I held on to a dream that someday I might be really successful at racing and that dream came true. When I went into the TV booth, I was holding on to that microphone thinking that maybe someday I could be considered one of the best broadcasters there’s ever been. So I’ve always been holding on to something. At some point in your life you have to say enough is enough.”

In 2015, Cup Series champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart stepped away from driving, although Gordon returned for eight races the next season as a substitute driver for injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. Carl Edwards also retired following the 2016 season.

Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the final race of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in 2017. (HHP/David Tullis Photo)

Earnhardt Jr. retired from Cup Series competition in 2017.

“Obviously, I think every driver thinks about retirement and how they want that — what they think that looks like for them as they get to a certain age,” Earnhardt said at the time. “But I wasn’t really thinking about that too much until the last couple years. Once I started to realize how delicate things are and how quickly that can be made for you, it’s something I had to start thinking about quite seriously.

“… I just had to make the decision that I’m happy with … it’s a tough thing to have to tell people and certainly was challenging expressing to my family and very close friends what my decision was, with you I have to make the one that I want to make and the one I’m comfortable living with. So that’s what I did.”

Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler and Jamie McMurray left full-time racing after last season and David Ragan plans to do the same at the end of this year.

“Some drivers have retired because of health reasons or a desire to spend time with family or pursue other interests, but I think mostly the grind of a full 36-race season is exhausting,” said Steve Waid, a longtime journalist who has covered NASCAR racing for more than 40 years. “After many years, it’s just too much with the racing and other obligations they have. In all honestly, I’m sure all drivers are proud of their accomplishments, but there comes a point where they simply no longer have the desire to do it.”