Posted: 2:15 pm Tuesday, April 25th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Anyone interested in the topic of NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt Jr. heard the news about 9 a.m. today – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring at the end of this season. This announcement comes on the heels of his missing the final 18 races of last season with debilitating concussion-like symptoms and in annual succession of the retirements of Jeff Gordon (before 2016) and Tony Stewart (2017) – arguably NASCAR’s two most popular drivers behind Earnhardt Jr. The reasons Earnhardt Jr. has to retire – though he will articulate them later today – are obvious: after multiple concussions, he wants to live the rest of his life healthy and he turns 43 in October, so he can leave the sport on his own accord.
But two bigger questions arise in this bombshell announcement. Who physically replaces Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy? And who now becomes the face of NASCAR?
The No. 88 replacement is easier to tackle, but has no obvious answer. Alex Bowman filled in admirably in Earnhardt Jr.’s injury absence in 2016, scoring three top 10s and a pole in 10 starts. Bowman has toiled with smaller race teams most of his NASCAR career and, left without a ride before the 2016 season, signed with Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick-affiliated JR Motorsports team for a limited schedule. Giving the youngster a shot in a top ride ended up paying off well for HMS and he ran even better than Gordon did in the balance of the other races. But Bowman still doesn’t have but a couple of spot starts scheduled in 2017 and is waiting patiently in the wings at Hendrick Motorsports, working as a test driver and with research and development behind the scenes.
The biggest arguments against Bowman getting the keys to the No. 88 is that he has never won in any of NASCAR’s top three series and still does not have much name recognition. Would Nationwide and Axalta want to spend millions to roll the dice on Bowman? That is no given.
HMS signed William Byron as another hot shoe in its development program and he is running very well in the JRM No. 9 Chevy in the Xfinity Series. Byron had a breakout 2016 Camping World Truck Series campaign, winning seven races and coming close to the championship. But most would argue that he is not ready for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series just yet and more than likely is in line as a replacement down the line for Jimmie Johnson or Kasey Kahne.
Carl Edwards stepped away from NASCAR to the shock of the racing world in January, but never ruled out his return. Could Rick Hendrick twist his ear much like he did with Gordon’s to get Edwards to run the No. 88 until Bowman or Byron are ready to take it? The sponsors may want that, but Edwards seemed to be seeking an escape from the grind of the full schedule.
Edwards’ old teammate Greg Biffle stepped away from his longtime ride at Roush Fenway Racing, after several years of struggling. Could Biffle be in Hendrick’s crosshairs as a stop gap driver? Frankly, his time out of the car and age (47) work against him.
Looking up and down the NASCAR grid, there really isn’t a decent driver with a b-grade team that stands out as an obvious choice for Hendrick to pursue. Martin Truex Jr. is running extremely well at Furniture Row Racing. The Roush Fenway drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne aren’t worthy of the No. 88 ride. Chris Buescher still has some proof to earn in a struggling sophomore year. Ryan Newman is over the hill at Richard Childress Racing. Paul Menard is in a rent-a-ride situation at RCR. And Childress’ grandsons aren’t leaving the family team. But…there’s one.
Kyle Larson is having a spectacular breakout fourth season in the MENCS, leading the points standings and running up front each week. Chip Ganassi Racing has stepped up its often mediocre NASCAR operation into a weekly contender and Larson is easily the sport’s breakout driver this year. But Larson likely is staying put. People rumored Larson to be a potential replacement for Jeff Gordon in the No. 24, but Chase Elliott rightfully landed the ride. Tony Stewart said that he courted Larson for the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, but Larson stayed at Ganassi. Larson has said before that he is fiercely loyal to Ganassi for taking a chance on him – and now he is finally running well. Larson may get some pressure, but he likely stays in the No. 42.
Just as we didn’t see the Edwards announcement coming, some domino will fall that could free up a big name driver and make a real sweepstakes for that No. 88. In fact, this is like the reverse sweepstakes 10 years ago when Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc.
The bigger question, however, is which driver could potentially be the face of NASCAR in the post-Earnhardt Jr. era? Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon arguably held that role before the younger Earnhardt’s emergence. But Earnhardt Jr. transcends the sport. His humble and blue collar, but yet rock star status makes him the first name most think of at the mention of NASCAR. There is no obvious driver or drivers that endear themselves to that description.
Chase Elliott carries a legion of fans, but is rather quiet and has yet to win a race. He could, though, end up every bit as popular as his dad. Larson is blooming into a winner, but he kind of lacks the personality. The Dillon brothers are not winners yet. The Busch brothers still are “bad guys,” as are the Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Denny Hamlin just doesn’t do it for most people, despite his winning ways. The same holds true with his teammate and elder Matt Kenseth.
One driver that could…maybe…carry the Earnhardt Jr. torch is rookie Daniel Suarez. The Mexican driver got thrust into the MENCS after Edwards’ retirement, but has to become a winner at this level to even come close to popular. He brings diehard fans from his home country, which could be a big boon for NASCAR’s struggling numbers. He certainly has a personality and has shown great talent in winning the NXS championship last year.
Two more obvious names that briefly could carry the torch of not just Earnhardt Jr., but also Gordon and Stewart are Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. Johnson is chasing a record eighth championship and Harvick has been at the top of his game the past four seasons. They each are popular, but not nearly to the level of those recently retired.
So we sketch all of this out to say that the answers to either question are wide open. Hendrick Motorsports will no doubt craft the best replacement for a quality driver in Earnhardt Jr., whose 26 wins and two Daytona 500s pale in comparison to his brand and popularity. The love for Earnhardt Jr. is something that no one can craft. It came on the heels of tragedy and morphed with a southern rock star image to form a supernova in the early 2000s. Not one driver, but several, need to emerge as contenders behind the wheel and magnetizers in front of the camera to even come close of filling the void Earnhardt Jr. is creating.
Dale Jr. will remain a car owner, brand ambassador, and business entrepreneur. He isn’t going anywhere – he just won’t be racing on Sundays. Regardless of the direction of NASCAR’s future, thanks goes to Dale Earnhardt Jr. for pouring his entire life into a sport he loves and helping NASCAR heal after his father’s death. Cheers.