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You gotta know when to fold ‘em

NASCAR had two major retirement announcements this week.

Two.

In fact, they were less than 30 hours apart.

38-year-old Kasey Kahne said Thursday he’s retiring from full-time racing, and declared himself at peace with his decision. Kahne has 18 Cup wins in 15 years.

Not that I’m skeptical, but when you lose a Rick Hendrick ride, like Kahne did a year ago, for Leavine Family Racing (one top-five finish in 23 starts), it can raise some eyebrows. But the Leavines have been good to Kahne, offering him a ride for 2019, but he turned it down saying he plans to spend his time with his young son, Tanner, and with his sprint car team.

“The highs didn’t outweigh the lows, and the grueling schedule takes a toll on your quality of life,” Kahne said. “I need to spend time doing the things I enjoy and love.”

Kahne’s announcement came less than one day after 43-year-old Elliott Sadler walked away from NASCAR after 21 seasons.

Sadler hails from nearby Emporia, VA. I always admired how he never forgot about home. He currently drives for Dale Earnhardt. Jr.’s JR Motorsports in the second-tier Xfinity Series. He spent a dozen full-time seasons in a Cup ride driving for the Wood Brothers, Robert Yates, Ray Evernham and Richard Petty.

Like Kahne, he says he’s retiring to spend more time with his two young children.

They are the latest in a growing list of NASCAR drivers who have hung up their fire suits: Danica Patrick, Junior, Carl Edwards, three-time champion Tony Stewart, four-time champ Jeff Gordon – and almost! – Matt Kenseth.

If you remember, or were told, what it was like when Petty, David Pearson, Harry Gant, Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, and so many others took their last lap around a NASCAR track, you swallowed hard, cried, cussed, and maybe even burned a few mementos; but more importantly, you moved on to follow someone else.

True, some fans simply lost interest, knowing their favorite driver would never race again. And, sadly, they haven’t returned.

Then you have also got those ‘short attention span’ Millennials who think the races are too long, and prefer chasing a little white ball across a slice of manicured grass.

But deep down, if you were a fan, then it wasn’t the driver, the paint scheme, owner, engine builder, tire changer, whomever … it was your love of the sport.

Now you find yourself in the same place as your folks: who do you cheer for once your favorite driver retires?

It’s bad enough NASCAR has continued to struggle in recent years with lower attendance and sagging TV ratings, but when so many top names, and in Junior’s case a megastar, not to mention the sport’s most popular driver retires, then it has a devastating effect on a sport at a time when it least needs it.

And if you look around, there’s several more on the retirement horizon, including ‘maybe’ a Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Casey Mears, or Kurt Busch.

But just like any two or three-car race team, there’s a well-stocked pool of young up-and-coming drivers ready to step into the seats of Earnhardt, Gordon, Stewart, and the rest.

Yes, it may seem like the future looks dire for NASCAR with so many drivers in the retirement loop, but there’s more than enough drivers to fill the role of veterans who have aged out of their racing careers, no matter how long or short.

Sure, it may take several years for these guys to become ‘polished’ like Junior, or Gordon, or Stewart, Johnson, Harvick, and so many others, but one thing is certain: NASCAR has plenty of drivers to step in and make a name for themselves.

You just hate to see so many good ones, young ones, tested and true ones hanging it up.

 

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or call 252-332-7211.