Michael Waltrip Racing made the announcement that Martin Truex Jr. would be joining the team full time in 2010 driving the NAPA Toyota on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Owner and driver Waltrip would be stepping back a bit and driving a reduced schedule with the dates to be announced. This would presumably be a step towards his retirement as a full time Cup Series driver.
Some of the best known names in the sport have eased out from behind the wheel, slowly and deliberately. Some not going cold turkey but doing a semi retirement process that make me wonder when their last race will be.
In 1988 three giants stepped out of the cockpit forever. Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker all tipped their hat farewell to flooring the “pedal on the right” as a regular way of life.
Richard Petty announced in 1991 that 1992 would be his final season as a race car driver. His fan appreciation tour provided a lot of fanfare, celebrations, salutes and profit. “The King” went out in a big way.
Harry Gant called it quits following the 1994 Cup campaign. This was also announced ahead of time so there were several ceremonies saluting “The Bandit.” While not having the fanfare that Petty’s last go around had, Gant’s final year was more in tune with his own style. Quiet, reserved, and respectful. Incidentally, two other racing greats used 1994 as a retirement year. Indy car’s Mario Andretti and NHRA’s Don Prudhomme said farewell one last time.
In 2000 Darrell Waltrip did make his final season around the tour. Promotion was less than what he deserved, but he did get to say goodbye.
Rusty Wallace saluted his fans in 2005 and cleverly tabbed it “Rusty’s Last Call” in association with Miller Lite his sponsor. That same year began with Mark Martin’s farewell season as well. We all know how that wound up.
Dale Jarrett had a well-orchestrated final bow in 2008 as the stage was set for his retirement from driving and transition into broadcasting.
Some drivers put their heart and soul into this sport and get to take a nice curtain call. They get some added attention, there is extra merchandising, and most importantly, their fans get to watch and applaud one final performance.
Some drivers put their heart and soul into this sport and circumstances align so they just fade away and are not afforded that curtain call, which is a shame. They are piloting field filling race entries or competing in a lower division. But where once were Cup media darlings are now just racers. And that is not a bad thing.
What I miss was the definitive end of the Cup career and the chance to clap our hands one last time. Unfortunately some good drivers got caught out of rides and circumstances kept then out. And they gracefully just backed out and moved to other things in life.
I can think of several drivers who were worthy of at least a tip of the hat to and a thank you for what they did for racing. It would have been nice to at least have a little recognition for Ken Schrader, Ward Burton, Ricky Craven, Jimmy Spencer, Johnny Benson, Geoff Bodine, Mike Skinner, Ted Musgrave, and Kyle Petty.
Joe Nemechek still shows up every week with his own team and are often relegated to start and park status. Will he eventually quietly join the above group or have a chance to race and make a concluding wave to the grandstand?
Sterling Marlin makes an occasional start but when will the last one be? He has many fans that would probably buy a ticket to see that race just for that reason.
Terry Labonte seems to show up every once in a while. Bill Elliot is a part timer. Some drivers go away and others stick like glue.
How long will Michael Waltrip continue? Time will tell. I just think it would be nice for all the drivers that have spent their lives entertaining us, and fans have spent good money to watch, have a designated last race.
Ricky Rudd took a deliberate and quiet exit and that is fine. Go out any way you’d like. There are a lot of race fans, however, that would like to know when that day is ahead of time so they can witness the event and the recognition of a career. Life doesn’t guarantee this for anyone. Sometimes a career ends in whatever form fate deals that hand. But it would be nice if some of the good guys could have their day in the sun.