For years, Mark Martin, Terry and Bobby Labonte, Kenny Schrader and Jeff Burton were the stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Over the years, they piled up wins and championships, some 108 victories among them but none in recent times – an adverse condition that works against them. Among these drivers, they have accumulated 3,932 starts on the premier circuit. Even with these numbers, the headlines and the years of dedication, their prominence began to fade as the next generation of drivers passed them by.
Martin, Schrader and Burton are entered in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend, and it could well be their last Sprint Cup race as they have no rides lined up for the 2013 season. Schrader has announced that he’s through with Sprint Cup and Martin and Burton are non-committal about their plans.
The Labonte brothers are former Sprint Cup champions, so they may well use their past champion’s provisional for occasional one-off races. Bobby Labonte has been replaced in the JTG Daugherty car for next season, and he may have had his last Sprint Cup race at Phoenix a week ago.
Start-and-park deals may be offered to the veterans as will opportunities to run in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but these deals won’t be lasting ones.
In major league sports, most athletes have dropped out of competition by the time they reach their late 30s or for sure by age 40. Racing doesn’t have an age limit, which benefits aging drivers. Terry Labonte and Schrader lead the parade being 57 years old. Martin is 54 with Bobby Labonte 47 and Burton 46. Of the four, Martin is probably in the best physical condition as he is a physical-fitness fanatic, and could readily wrestle a heavy stock car around for years to come.
But all is not lost on them as numerous others continue to race as they surpass the 50 mark. At 71, Morgan Shepherd frequently competes in the Nationwide Series. World of Outlaws 20-time champion Steve Kinser, 57, plows dirt regularly with his winged sprint car and every now and then, Alabama legend Red Farmer, thought to be in his 80s, climbs into a dirt modified.
Car owner Richard Childress has been around racing as long as the drivers previously named, and he’s not surprised to see the turnover that is occurring. “I’ve been in this sport a long time and have seen a number of great drivers come and go,” Childress said. “That cycle is about to roll around again, as there are a lot of the really good drivers that are in their 40s and there’s a great crop of young drivers coming up.”
Change is said to be healthy for any business or sport, so time will tell how it works for these drivers and the fans that have cheered for them for many years.