Youth is being served in NASCAR

Published 9:29 am Monday, August 14, 2017

Face it, Dale Earnhardt Jr. transcends NASCAR. Not only is he the sport’s 14-time most popular driver; but in more than name, he’s also one of the most recognizable professional athletes in any sport. And now, Junior is really racking up since he announced his impending retirement.

Not only will he be an NBC Sports NASCAR analyst starting in 2018, but he’ll also have opportunities with the Peacock Network’s media businesses, including movies, television, podcasts, and other areas.

Just this past week, he took time out from some track tests to give several Redskins players a spin around Richmond International Raceway, then he later sped on over to Bon Secours ‘Skins training camp to catch a few passes from Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins.

In both cases: nice work if you can get it.

But Junior was also serious about a topic that I have to agree may be hurting the sport he’s about to take his last tire-burn with: how NASCAR is treating its younger drivers.

Already, team owner Rick Hendrick is wasting little time in shuffling his lineups for next season. Unproven Alex Bowman has already been named as Junior’s replacement in the No. 88 Chevy; and he’s not the only one headed out of a Hendrick garage: 18-time race winner Kasey Kahne has been dumped, too. Not only that, but Kahne has won almost as many races as his replacement – William Byron – has been on this planet. Byron won’t turn 20 until this November.

And before you blame Hendrick, look at former champions Matt Kenseth with Joe Gibbs Racing and Kurt Busch with Stewart-Haas who are also free agent drivers shopping for a ride.

What’s going on? Well, Junior thinks it’s driver salaries.

He talked about the economics of NASCAR last week at Watkins Glen:

“You’ve got more drivers coming in being offered – and accepting – contracts that are a fifth to a tenth of what veterans are getting paid. And that’s money that can go into the team,” Junior said. “These sponsors aren’t giving teams the money they used to, so everybody’s got to take a little cut. Everybody’s got to realize they’ve got to accept some of that difference.

“You’ve got a guy who you think has got a lot of talent, very young, lot of potential – and a veteran who is established but he wants three, four, five, six times the amount of money. I mean, you’re going to go with a younger guy because it’s a better deal financially,” he said.

Junior called part of it NASCAR’s own “trickle-down effect” where drivers’ contracts now make a big difference in the decisions car owners have to make.

“You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year if you ain’t got but $10 million a year in sponsorship,” he explained. “You just can’t. That ain’t gonna work. (Owners) aren’t getting $20, $30, or $40 million a year on sponsorship.

“Drivers sort of have to understand that change is coming down the pipe. If it hasn’t happened to ’em yet, it’s going to happen to them. And the young guys, they don’t know any better. They’re taking a nickel to race. They’re taking whatever they can get.”

Junior feels the change is going to be better for the sport. He thinks it will get driver salaries into a realistic range for how much money NASCAR will be able to command from corporate America.

What’s easy to say may be hard to accept, but that’s the economic reality of NASCAR racing as the sport goes through its changing of the guard. Youth is being served in NASCAR, and it’s coming at a much cheaper price.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer with Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.