NASCAR stars are no longer driving into their 50s

Just a generation ago, NASCAR drivers raced until they were embarrassing themselves, the money ran out or they simply couldn’t make it to the track anymore. They could compete into their mid-50s, and make a really good living.

It’s an entirely different world now.

First went Jeff Gordon. Then Tony Stewart. Then Carl Edwards stunned everyone by walking away a month before the season began and just three months after he came heartbreakingly close to winning the championship. Now Dale Earnhardt Jr. is packing his bags to leave NASCAR .

All have their own reasons, but the nation’s biggest auto racing series could be a victim of its own popularity. With millions on the table from sponsorships, prize money and merchandise, drivers can afford to walk away a decade earlier than the old days from a schedule that chews up 38 weeks a year.

The current crop of veterans ” a group led by Matt Kenseth, who at 44 is the oldest full-time driver in the field ” came up during NASCAR’s big boom of the early 2000s. Breaking into the big leagues as part of the “Young Guns” push just about guaranteed a 20-year Cup career and a cool $50 million in earnings. Ryan Newman was part of the 2002 class with Jimmie Johnson, and combined they have run 1,107 races and earned more than $238 million in race winnings alone.

he entire industry was getting rich behind fat sponsorships and huge television deals, and the packed grandstands certainly helped. When Earnhardt announced Tuesday that he was retiring at the end of the year, Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage knew the immediate effect it would have on his gate.

“Dang it! Dale Jr. put my kids through college and I was hoping he would stick around long enough to send my grandkids to college,” Gossage said.

The money made the last 20 years in NASCAR is just one reason drivers can walk away earlier than before without having to worry about their next meal. Brian Scott pulled the plug on his journeyman career at the end of last year to spend more time with his growing family. Greg Biffle would rather sit on the sidelines this year than take a ride with a low-end team. And Edwards? No one really understands his decision after he came 10 laps away from the title.

Gordon, with a bad back, had a chance to move into the television booth and spend more time with his kids. Stewart, physically and mentally drained after three years of upheaval, wanted his life to involve more than just NASCAR. Earnhardt wanted to be able to walk away when he wanted to, not when a doctor told him his next concussion would be one too many.

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