Before the first week of the Chase arrived, before Richmond and the madness of SpinGate overtook the NASCAR world, there was another quiet trend developing that seemed to have some race fans increasingly on edge.
It's nothing new, but rather an unstoppable, inevitable happening that sweeps over the Cup Series garage every decade or so. It's that period of transition when one beloved generation of racers is pushed out the door by the next hungry group in line. It has happened before, over and over. It will happen again, over and over. And yes, it is starting to happen right now.
Aug. 21: Sponsor AdvoCare inadvertently informed us that 23-year-old Austin Dillon would be moving up to the Sprint Cup Series in 2014, driving for his grandfather and Richard Childress Racing.
Aug. 28: Former champion Bobby Labonte was injured in a cycling accident, the final excruciating period at the end of a summer during which the 49-year-old had already been ousted by midpack JTG Daugherty Racing, snapping a streak of 704 consecutive starts, and landing him in the third-tier ride of Phoenix Racing.
Aug. 30: Chip Ganassi announced that 21-year-old wunderkind Kyle Larson would be taking over the No. 42 Chevy in the Cup Series in 2014.
Sept. 1: Chase Elliott, teenage development driver with Hendrick Motorsport and son of Bill, earned his first NASCAR national series win via a controversial crash with fellow young gun Ty Dillon, 21-year-old little brother to Austin.
Sept. 4: Jeff Burton called a surprise teleconference with the motorsports media to announce that he was leaving Richard Childress Racing at season's end, one full year before his contract was up. During his comments he openly, painfully acknowledged that yes, at the age of 47, his best racing days are likely behind him.
Sept. 7: At Richmond, Jeff Gordon once again found himself racing for his postseason life. When the checkers fell, he'd been left out of the Chase field for only the second time in 10 years. The night and its results were certainly not without controversy, but the larger truth is that the 42-year-old living legend has had his statistically worst season since his rookie year.
That year was 1993. Gordon won the coveted rookie of the year award by outrunning Labonte. The following season those honors were won by Burton. The garage they arrived in was still powered by cigarettes, had just discovered it could put lights around a speedway, still raced at North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, and still fielded Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs.
They also showed up in the middle of one those generational shift changes. A series of tragedies took the lives of Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison and Neil Bonnett. But, though no one could have known we were seeing it at the time, Darrell Waltrip earned the last of 84 career wins in '92, Dale Earnhardt won his seventh and final championship in '94, and Terry Labonte won his second and final title in '96. Harry Gant, Morgan Shepherd, Geoff Bodine and Kyle Petty were all going to Victory Lane for the last time.
"You look back now and think, 'Man, the starting grid really was changing in a hurry, wasn't it?'" Gordon recalled at Darlington in May, about to make his 700th career (and also consecutive) Cup start. "On one hand, I feel so fortunate to have been able to cross over these different generations. But on the other hand, being one of the young guys leading that change …" He started to chuckle. "Man, that got rough."
Rough as in booed. A lot. Rough as in anger because the sport was changing, gliding by on the sands of time, and the new, young guys were the ones who caught either the shouts, or worse, the silence, from old-school fans. As in, How dare you take wins or a ride away from the guy I've been rooting for my whole life!
"I remember all of that very well," Darrell Waltrip recalled earlier this summer. "You think it was painful for the fans? How about those of us that had owned the sport for years and then it was like, poof, the victories stop coming and you're getting passed by kids who were in grade school when you were winning championships. You think you're going to win forever, but you don't. It makes you mad at the ones who show up and start doing it."
To Waltrip, it felt sickeningly familiar. In the late 1970s, he was Jeff Gordon, a brash, good-looking, 20-something racer who showed up running door-to-door with Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. At the same time that those legends stopped winning championships and saw their annual win totals trimmed from double digits down to one or two per season, Waltrip led a group of young guns that included Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott and Ricky Rudd.
These days, we remember that group as the beloved pillars of the good old days, eventually unseated by Gordon, Burton and Bobby Labonte. At the time, Waltrip & Co. were anything but.
"It certainly wasn't as bad for me as it was for Dale or Darrell," Ricky Rudd said during this year's NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremonies. "But we all got that pushback of, 'How dare you guys come in here and make it hard for these older guys that we love so much.' Eventually, if you win, they come around. Then one day you show up for work and realize, 'Uh oh, I'm the old guy now. Where did all these kids come from?'"
And that is where Burton, Labonte and Gordon find themselves now. Tony Stewart, looking like a mere mortal for the first time in his career, likely isn't too far behind. At some point Mark Martin is going to run out of part-time opportunities.
"This is just how it goes," says Richard Petty, who was the face of NASCAR's first real generation shift, when he, Pearson, Ned Jarrett and Fred Lorenzen seized the baton from the sport's original superstars, such as Petty's father, Lee, Buck Baker, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts. "If all you do is cling to the way it used to be, you're gonna miss out. The future will pass you by and you'll be mad that you didn't enjoy it more when it got here."
The King's warning echoes the word of The Mayor. As Burton wrapped up his announcement teleconference, he was asked about the suddenly large wave of young talent that is about to roll into the Sprint Cup garage. Everyone knows that veteran drivers don't want to be pushed aside. But is this generation at least leaving the sport in good hands?
"Oh my god, yes," Burton replied without hesitation. He specifically referenced the Dillons, Larson, Ryan Blaney, his nephew Jeb Burton (son of Daytona 500 champion Ward) and his son, 12-year old Harrison. "Our sport needs young drivers. It needs new blood. The tide's got to run in, and it's got to run out, right? And with that new tide comes new stuff. It's time."