NASCAR: Tony Stewart Racing Into Retirement, Stars Hanging It Up Sooner

It seems the star NASCAR drivers are all considering earlier retirement than in the past.
It seems the star NASCAR drivers are all considering earlier retirement than in the past.

The changing of the guard is upon us in NASCAR. Behold the Iron Man swan song of Jeff Gordon this year, and the announced retirement of Tony Stewart for next year, which exposes just the tip of the impending wave of future retirements NASCAR will witness during the next five years.

The Sprint Cup garage is full of popular veterans that have crossed the 40 year age threshold. Gordon will retire at the age of 44, and Stewart will be 45 years old when he steps out of the car in 2016. Six-time Champion Jimmie Johnson just turned 40 this year, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be 41 on October 10th. Additionally, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle are 43 and 45 years old, respectively.

Markedly, only 4 of the 16 drivers (Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano) in this year’s Chase are under the age of 35. Remaining Chase contenders Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex, Jr., Carl Edwards, Paul Menard, and Clint Bowyer are all within five years of 40 year watermark.

Arguably, these renowned masters are at the top of their game with the best rides in the sport and the most fan support. Still, the back-to-back hits that four-time Champion Gordon and three-time Champion Stewart are retiring has shaken many core fans who have admired these drivers’ contributions both on and off the track.

Stewart seems to have made the right decision for him and his team's future.
Stewart seems to have made the right decision for him and his team’s future.

The daily grind of the NASCAR circuit wears on these athletes more than we see in the public eye. The pressures for on-track performance are grueling in seeking both purse winnings and sponsorship. The revamped Chase Championship format only has escalated the pressure to perform. Sprint Cup Drivers now have two intense seasons: First, the 26 week run needed to qualify for The Chase, and second, the 10-week playoff format of four successive elimination rounds to determine the Cup Champion.

When you layer on a competitive NASCAR season that spans 70% of the calendar year, constant media appearances, and the never-ending quest for sponsorship dollars, we can surely expect to see more driver hanging up their helmets as they approach the 40 year age threshold, particularly given the “playbooks” that Gordon and Stewart have laid out for their post-career transitions to either the broadcast booth or team ownership.

Additionally, there is the money angle, which is better today than it ever has been.

For perspective on how the sport has transformed from a wealth perspective, I compared two groups of legendary NASCAR drivers with a distinguished tenure in the sport based on their career race winnings (as a proxy of success, which assuredly does not capture sponsorships and other income sources):

  • Six current Sprint Cup Stars in the 40 year club (while not all have titles, these six racers have amassed 14 Championships, along with an average career spanning 18 seasons at NASCAR’s highest level)
  • Six legacy NASCAR Hall of Famers, all champions with 22 titles between them. These Hall of Famers competed 28 seasons on average (with none less than 25 seasons) and their careers mostly carried into the early to mid-50 year age range




Career Earnings



Avg Per Season


Jeff Gordon






Jimmie Johnson






Tony Stewart






Matt Kenseth






Dale Earnhardt, Jr.






Greg Biffle














Career Earnings



Avg Per Season


Rusty Wallace






Dale Earnhardt






Darrell Waltrip






Richard Petty






Bobby Allison






David Pearson












Jeff Gordon need not work another day in his life, but he will.
Jeff Gordon need not work another day in his life, but he will.

The career winnings differential is striking, with the current Cup Stars earning a multiple of 5X what the Hall of Famers amassed, in spite of the Hall of Famers generally staying in the sport an extra decade. Compared on a Per Season Average, the current Cup Stars average close to $5 million per year in winnings, which is 8X the Hall of Famers. Even after adjusting for inflation, the Hall of Famers’ average per season winnings only rise to around $900,000, which still leaves a 5X disadvantage compared to the current Cup Stars.

The timeless proverb that “racing costs the same as it did 30 years ago; it takes every penny you have” remains true for many seeking success in the sport, but the current Cup Stars at the top echelon of NASCAR are able to amass a tidy fortune much sooner in their careers. This is critical, as today’s stars like Stewart, Gordon and Johnson began their driving careers almost as early as they enrolled in grade school.

My point is not to suggest that the iconic Hall of Famers were shortchanged, but to recognize that NASCAR drivers today can attain a successful earnings stream and build a comfortable golden egg for retirement, while transitioning into complementary roles within the sport at an early stage of life. Many of the current crop of stars are already well coached in publicity and media appearances as a necessity of securing sponsors. One only needs to revel in the classic advertisements spots for Mobil1 that Stewart has filmed over the course of his career to appreciate such talents. Drivers such as Bowyer, Edwards, Harvick and Gordon have already joined the Infinity Series broadcast booth as guest commentators as they groom themselves for the next stage of their careers.

So, with dramatic income potential, expanded post-retirement career opportunities, and the relentless grind of the season schedule, we will most assuredly undergo a surge of driver transitions as one era now comes to an end and another begins.

My suggestion for racing fans is to stay committed to the sport that you love, and start scanning now for an up-and-coming driver so that you are not stunned when your established veteran hangs up his or her helmet. Love the sport as our drivers have and stay engaged through the inevitable transitions.

As one generation retires, the next stars will emerge. Whether you choose the son or daughter of an established veteran such as John Hunter Nemechek or Chase Elliott, or a surprise upstart like Cole Custer or Erik Jones that emerges on the scene, you can rekindle your passion for the next crop of stars.

Alternatively, stay within your preferred auto manufacturer, or find a driver whose personality traits you admire. Take a rookie fan to the track, and root for the driver that they gravitate to (perhaps based on the paint scheme or the driver’s social media persona). If all else fails, play the lottery and draw car numbers from a hat. But stay engaged, and don’t be dazed by future driver retirements over the balance of this decade.

By Ron Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

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