Trio leaving before it gets awkward

There's nothing more pathetic than an old rock star trying to pretend he's still young. A racecar driver competing past his prime? Well, it's a very close second.

Seeing 55-year-old Bruce Springsteen jump around like a 25-year-old or Ozzy Osbourne imitate his early Black Sabbath days is like watching a Saturday Night Live sketch. Remember watching your grandparents do the Macarena at your wedding? Yeah, that's pretty much the same thing.

Old rockers dance but can't keep up with the music surrounding them. The same can be said for some former NASCAR superstars who, as hard as they tried, couldn't stay within three laps of the race leader during the final events of their careers. They skip to the beat but just can't keep the pace. The memories and accomplishments of the past just don't match the reality of the present.

No one wants to remember his or her heroes that way.

By revealing their retirement plans, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace are attempting to ensure that no one looks at them the way people looked at KISS (they were cool in the '70s but not anymore) lead singer Gene Simmons when he walked into the Richmond media center last month. The sight of Martin, Labonte and Wallace in firesuits is still believable while Simmon's face painting has been revealed for what it truly is, an act.

Going out on top -- or even in its vicinity -- is not easy, as Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty can attest. Combined these two NASCAR icons have 10 championships and 284 wins. Yet both continued to compete eight seasons after their final victory.

It's easy to understand why drivers stick around though. Just look at the payouts today compared to the mid '80s or early '90s. For his third and final championship in 1985 Waltrip won $702,298 (before bonus). In 2000, after finishing 36th in the standings, he pocketed $1,170,011. In fact, had Waltrip just run the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and any other seven races this year and finished last in all of them he still would have won more money than in any of his championship years.

There's incentive to stick around and plenty of drivers willing to take advantage. No names need to be mentioned but let's just use this as a rule of thumb. If a driver is over 40 and hasn't recorded a top-10 finish all season, he's starting to look a little like that 50-year-old rocker in tiger-striped spandex if you know what I mean.

Wallace, Martin and Labonte -- while each standing to gain significantly from their respective retirement tours -- are not among those that are still here merely to cash in.
These three have continued to race hard and have remained reasonably competitive. In 2004 there have been 13 different Nextel Cup winners, and Martin and Wallace are among them. Labonte's most recent win came just more than a year ago but he's finished among the top-10 six times this season.

Still, let's be honest. Each has lost a step -- certainly not to the point of embarrassment -- but they aren't what they once were.

Labonte is one of just 13 drivers who have won multiple Cup Series titles. The 1984 and '96 champ was never a dominant driver but his consistency was suffocating. He's finished among the standings' top-10 a stunning 17 times in 25 seasons, including 10 of his first 11.

Wallace, the 1989 champion, won 10 races in 1993 and eight the following year. He scored a win every season from 1986 through 2001.

Martin has finished second in the point standings an agonizing four times. He's never won it all, but then again his career's not over yet. Martin's currently fifth in the championship chase, making a case that he's still in his prime.

Give these drivers respect. Not only for what they've accomplished on the racetrack but also for the way they'll leave it. Wallace, Martin and Labonte will give up the one thing they love most, the thing they know the best and enter a world of unknown.

Bowing out gracefully is rare, not only for racecar drivers, but for athletes in general. There seems an addiction to competition not easily forfeited. Michael Jordan's on again, off again retirements are the contemporary example. Hall of Fame Baseball player Willie Mays, a lifetime .302 hitter, is another. In his final season (1973) he hit a paltry .211 with just six home runs.

Perhaps former Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, who in his final season hit .316 with 29 homers including one in his final at bat, made the best exit of all time. The closest NASCAR has to that may be Ned Jarrett who won the championship in 1965 then retired after the next season.

This rash of pending retirements may be sad but it's not bad for the sport. There is a wealth of young talent already making its mark. Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray or any of the other young guns could be to Wallace, Martin and Labonte what Jeff Gordon was to Petty: someone who fills the void.

As Wallace, Martin and Labonte make their way toward the exit door next season let's give credit where it's due. Not only have they compiled Hall of Fame numbers they are strong enough to do something most athletes -- and old rock stars -- are afraid to do: walk away at the right time.

Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.