NASCAR drivers have generally been able to hang on for years longer than those in other professional sports. The nature of motor racing can sometimes favor a wiley veteran, even if they're not as physically fit as the young guys. Still, there generally comes a point when even loads of experience can't close the gap, and the driver is faced with the looming spectre of retirement. But how do you leave it all behind? For many drivers, motor racing has been the central facet of their lives for decades. It's hard to let go of something you have been doing your whole life.
Thus, retirement has always been difficult for those in NASCAR's top sport. Until recently, options seemed limited for the elder driver, and none of them were very good.
1) The long downward spiral. This seemed to be the sad, but favored way to go out for many of the best drivers in the sport. Generally, the driver starts to win less. Then suddenly, the wins stop. Sure, bad streaks happen, so they keep going. They've had slumps before, right? Well, this one doesn't end. As time progresses, the team goes from fighting for the win every week, to fighting for top 10's, then top 20's, then fighting to even make the race. It seems the more successful the driver, the more likely they were to face this fate. Richard Petty won his last race in 1984, but soldiered on until 1992. That same year would be the last that 3 time champion Darrell Waltrip would win. He actually won 3 times that year, and then nothing. THe most painful part about watching this happen is these drivers tend to show glimmers of their past greatness. Maybe they snag a pole, or an unexpected top 5, and suddenly everyone's thinking turnaround. But it doesn't seem to pan out. Part of this seems because many older drivers seem to make mistake number 2:
2) The driver to owner-driver to owner transition. This seemed to be the ideal in NASCAR for a long time. Richard Petty pulled it off in a way. Richard Childress certainly found much more success as an owner. It seemed like the perfect way to go out of the sport. You're a hot shot driver and you see retirement looming. So you use your fame, fortune, and experience to build a new team that will carry on your legacy. You plan to race your way into retirement, and find a suitable replacement. From then on, it's an easy way to stay involved in the sport. Unfortunately, the owner driver trap has burned many drivers. Petty and Waltrip have already been mentioned. While Waltrip's career didn't end as an owner driver, it was certainly hurt by what happened as a result. Geoffrey Bodine fell into the trap. Ricky Rudd did okay with it, then wisely bailed. My man Bill Elliott looked like he was going to be one of those downward spiral drivers until he sold his team to Ray Evernham and posted an unexpected late career comeback. It just doesn't seem to work. Drivers get caught up, distracted, or stuck with sub par equipment when they try to go out this way. But still, it's an understandable gambit. Even though it's struggling, the Petty team is still around. Childress found huge success when he teamed up with Dale Earnhardt and let him do the driving. Too bad the trap ruined so many careers.
3) The sudden departure. Ricky Rudd pulled this one. One day he was at the track, the next day he said, "Oh yeah, that was my last race." Harry Gant did this while still relatively competative. These decide to "go out on top." This leaves fans dissatisfied, and often leaves an open ended questions as to whether they will return.
4) The Farewell tour. Usually coming 1 year too late, the big farewell tour gives fans a chance to say goodbye, and the media a chance to say "OMG THIS IS THE LAST TIME RUSTY WALLACE WILL RACE HERE!" I don't really recall anyone actually winning on their farewell tour, so its success seems limited.
5) The Bill Elliott Way. For a time after 2003 it looked like Elliott had found the proper way to leave the sport with dignity. While still victorious, he decided he would cut back to a limited schedule in the next year. It seemed perfect. He could stay with the team he helped build, and race at just his favorite tracks only caring about the win, rather than points. It even seems possible. He posted some pretty good finishes the next year. Terry Labonte soon followed in his footsteps, and suddenly the "partial schedule" seemed like the solution to the retirement problem. Except the problem is, the partial schedule has just turned into a slightly less painful version of the downward spiral. Because of how competetive NASCAR is, you need a top notch team with top notch equipment to win. A partial team, even one affiliated with a top team, will necessarily have less dedicated members, a crappy pit crew, and lesser equipment. It is by design a second tier team in the organization. Sponsorship troubles have plagues Elliott's attempt to do what he wants. It remains to be seen if he can have any success with his new style of roulette, racing for many different teams to help development, but it seems doubtful.
Note: I think this could work if teams took a page from the Buschwhackers in the Busch Series. Some cup drivers will race a partial schedule in the Busch series, but the team will be there for the whole season, usually with a rookie filling in for the rest of the races. It works incredibly well. Rookie drivers get experience, experienced drivers get to have fun. The team stays cohesive and can be competative. The team is more appealing to sponsors, who would love to have their name associated with a popular driver, compared to just some rookie. Special sponsors can also be run and deals seem easier to cut. For the life of me I cannot figure out why we didn't see the number 91 car in every race. The formula is proven to be workable.
But for all the potential of the Partial schedule, it seems that Mark Martin will finally go out the way a racer should: as a competative winner with a planned retirement. Although he actually has his busiest year to date, Mark Martin is 5th in points for his final year in cup, and will probably make the chase and be a contender. Beyond all the speculation of a possible "championship retirement" (which would be too awesome for words) its his 2007 season that will be the real interesting one. On top of his cup schedule, Martin has raced 7 of the 10 truck series races this season. He's won three. He's 13th in points, which is absolutely insane when you consider that 23 other drivers have had 3 races worth of points to rack up on him. And 29 drivers have raced more than him. The next driver in the points who has only competed in 7 races is Scott Lagasse Jr. back in 31st, 1103 points behind the leader. Martin is only 436 behind. Of course, spectacular finishes will do that for a guy. But there is almost no doubt that were it not for those missed races, Martin would be leading the points right now.
Martin's always had his fun in the lower series. He is simply the greatest Busch Series racer ever to live. It's no surprise that he has found success with his team down in the Truck series. But the point is this: Martin will end 2006 a championship contender in the top series. Then he steps down to a lower series, and he will be an even more serious championship contender. From there, he can do what he wants. He'll go out like many come up, through the next lowest series. This gives him the chance to go out a winner, and be remembered as such by every last fan. Mark Martin finally found the right way to retire.