Amidst the sea of crew members and race fans lay three scenes of interest. At one end of pit road, Kevin Harvick hugs his family and crew members. At another end, Ross Chastain smashes a watermelon to celebrate his race victory. Finally, at the center of attention is the runner-up finisher. Surrounded by photographers, fellow drivers and eventually race fans, Ryan Blaney exits his car to a storm of confetti as the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series champion.
The 75th season of NASCAR concludes with the changing of eras.
The curtain call on the Winston Cup era
After a seventh-place finish at his playground of Phoenix Raceway, Harvick hangs up his helmet and transitions to calling NASCAR races for FOX Sports. His retirement severs the last connection to the Winston Cup Series era.
Sure, there are several drivers from the mid to late 2000s still active, but Harvick was the last full-time driver from the season-long points era.
In other words, the drivers of my childhood are gone.
My childhood hero, Jeff Gordon, retired just before I joined the media corp. Tony Stewart, NASCAR’s ultimate smartass, retired in my first season on the NASCAR beat. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth*, rookies when I started following NASCAR, retired in 2017.
*Yes, I know Kenseth raced in 2018 and 2020, but that was in substitution roles.
Jimmie Johnson was the bane of my teenage years, but as I covered his seventh championship run and curtain call of his Cup Series career, I learned to appreciate what a great driver he really was.
Finally, Harvick, an A-type personality who took over the ride of the late Dale Earnhardt, rides off into the sunset with a career that’s frankly on par with “The Intimidator.” Not necessarily numbers-wise, but like the man in black, he established himself as a member of his generation’s elite drivers.
Harvick finishes 10th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list (60), the champion of the 2014 season and five Championship 4 appearances. He’s a first-ballot entry into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Somewhere in the racing afterlife, I imagine Earnhardt sporting his signature Chesire grin at his replacement.
The young guns
When I started covering NASCAR in 2016 and even into 2017, the scuttlebutt of who’s gonna fill the shoes of the stars permeated the airwaves of SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Cut to Sunday, and the roar of fans drowns out Blaney’s SportsCenter hit.
The young guns who replaced the older stars fit their shoes. Chase Elliott, Gordon’s (initial) replacement is NASCAR’s most popular driver, until one of Earnhardt Jr.’s daughters joins the Cup Series. William Byron, Gordon’s next replacement, made the Championship 4. Christopher Bell, Kenseth’s replacement, did the same two years in a row. Larson is the only driver to win both the Knoxville Nationals and Cup Series championships in the same year.
Now Blaney, one year removed from a winless season, hoists the Bill France Cup.
Of this group, only Larson is over the age of 30.
And there’s more youth coming up the NASCAR pipeline.
As the late George Jones sang, “Who’s gonna fill their shoes?”
Yeah, I think we can put those fears to rest now.
Is the present perfect?
No. Not by a long shot.
But as I wrote, on Saturday, there’s reason for optimism about NASCAR’s future. Sunday at Phoenix Raceway encapsulated that the waning star power we feared in the late 2010s is a solved problem.
For now, we take a much-needed vacation and do this all again in February.
That’s my view, for what it’s worth.