ON NOV.10, crowded behind the stage for driver introductions at the Phoenix International Raceway, Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon chatted and laughed. In the mid-1990s, they were the leaders of NASCAR's original Young Gun movement, earmarked as racing's next great rivalry. Back then they met fan resistance; they were symbols of a sport threatening to race away from its regional roots, youthful upstarts who dared to beat the aging likes of Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott. "Now listen to this," Burton said as Gordon's name was announced to thunderous applause. "That used to be nothing but boos."
Gordon replied, smiling: "That just means we're getting older. They feel sorry for us."
The four-time champ is half right. They are definitely older, 40-something dads with graying temples and declining win totals. But the pity the fans feel isn't for the racers -- it's for themselves. They worry that the good ol' days of NASCAR are now in their twilight.
When the checkered flag fell on the 2013 season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 17, it was likely Burton's final race as a full-timer. Same for his former teammate and mentor, 54-year-old Mark Martin, as well as 2000 Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte and 58-year-old folk hero Ken Schrader, who will never stop dirt-track racing but says Homestead was his 763rd and final Cup race. Gordon, a Cup title contender throughout the fall at age 42, is for the first time sounding downright nostalgic about his legendary career, fueling speculation that he's much closer to retirement than he's willing to admit.
The sudden exodus of longtime favorites has NASCAR brass quietly scrambling to ensure that the last remnants of what chairman Brian France refers to as the "core fan base" don't walk out the door. In 2011 the sanctioning body introduced the NASCAR Next initiative, which identifies promising young racers along the minor league ladder and promotes them as the sport's future stars. Among the past two classes are a few old-school surnames: Jeb Burton is Jeff's nephew and the son of 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward; Chase Elliott's father is Awesome Bill; and Ryan Blaney calls 16-year NASCAR vet Dave Blaney Dad. Together, they account for 20 top-five finishes and four wins in the Camping World Truck Series over the past two seasons.
Fans' fears are misplaced, insist the veterans. It's just a new era of Young Guns. "I get the concern because I lived it," Jeff Burton says. "When I came along, guys like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough were hanging it up. Everyone said the sport wouldn't survive, but it got bigger. Now it's time for us to start getting the hell out of the way; the sport's in great hands."