Who's gonna fill their shoes
Who's gonna stand that tall
Who's gonna play the Opry
And the Wabash Cannonball
Who's gonna give their heart and soul
To get to me and you
Lord I wonder -- who's gonna fill their shoes?
-- George Jones
It was late in the night on Nov. 22 when the Jeff Gordon retirement party finally departed Homestead-Miami Speedway. The living legend had just finished his 797th and final Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup race, a sixth-place grand finale to a weeklong celebration of his career.
The countdown to that departure fueled a pair of storylines that nearly overwhelmed the coverage of the four-man championship battle in which he was a participant.
What will NASCAR 2016 be like without Gordon behind the wheel? What will it be like in 2017 after Tony Stewart hangs up his helmet? How much longer will Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth -- all now in their 40s -- keep racing?
And when they're all gone, who's gonna fill their shoes?
Gordon, for one, isn't worried. As he left Homestead-Miami, the last remaining Wonder Boy-clad fans waved to him, some weeping as he and his family rolled out of the track, headed north for a celebratory party on South Beach. One woman shouted, "Who are we going to pull for now, Jeff?" He smiled and replied, "You've got a lot choices. I'm partial to the 24 car!"
They exited through the tunnel between Turns 3 and 4. As they departed, they didn't notice the photographers setting up out in those turns. They were preparing to take photos of the just-crowned three NASCAR national touring series champions, Sprint Cup champ Kyle Busch, Xfinity Series champ Chris Buescher and Camping World Truck Series titlist Erik Jones.
The average age between them? 24. Busch, the oldest member of the trio, being an ancient 30 years old.
"This is the cycle, isn't it?" Edsel Ford II said the morning of Gordon's final race. The 67-year-old great-grandson of Henry Ford sported the grin of a man with wisdom gleaned from a lifetime spent at the racetrack. "There is a natural fear when the legends start to retire. We all panicked when A.J. Foyt announced he was done. Or Mario Andretti, Richard Petty, now Jeff. But when you've been around as long as some of us have, then you know that someone out there will step in. More than one. Some we will see coming. Others will surprise us. It's not scary. It's exciting."
Those we should see coming include Buescher, one of Ford's drivers. He's 23 now, but signed a development deal with Roush Fenway Racing six years ago. In 2016, he will move up to Sprint Cup full-time, piloting a Ford for Front Row Motorsports as part of an alliance with RFR.
Jones, just 19, made his Cup debut last summer, filling in for an ailing Denny Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing, and then for a suspended Kenseth. This season he will enter more Cup races while running full-time in Xfinity.
As for Gordon's ride, his confidence in its future is well founded. Chase Elliott, only one year older than Jones, will bring a resume that includes a 2014 Xfinity championship to Cup, slapping his-last name legacy (son of Bill) over the door of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevy.
Between those three, other youngsters on the NASCAR ladder and the 20-to-30-somethings who already rule the Sprint Cup garage, their ability to drive race cars is without dispute. But what about their ability to steer the future of an entire sport? They can win races, but can they win over the fan bases of the departing demigods?
"That's a lot of pressure, man," Elliott laughed as he replied to that question last fall, en route to a runner-up points finish behind Buescher. "But we all know about that. We've been trained for it. And we've all kind of grown up together. We still are. So, one of us is bound to figure it out, right?"
It was a joke. But it also wasn't. They have been trained for it, much better than the Gordon generation was. Team owners aren't nearly as aggressive about driver development as they once were, and that's a good thing.
Stockpiling teenage racers signed to contracts led to mostly swings and misses in the desperate search for the next Gordon.
"I won't ever let myself go back and add up how much all that cost me," Rick Hendrick admitted last fall, reflecting back on the Young Gun craze. "So now, when I am willing to invest in a kid or whenever Jack [Roush] or Joe [Gibbs] or Richard [Childress] is willing to invest in a kid, you know we're true believers. It's gone back to the way it used to be.
"They have to prove they can win on those short tracks. Then they have to prove they can handle the other jobs that come with being a Sprint Cup driver. Then we'll give them a shot. And then it's up to them. They have to take it from there."
In other words, it's back to the way Jeff Gordon did it. Not the shortcuts to try and reinvent Jeff Gordon. There's a big difference between receiving help, getting a break here and there, and handing a youngster more than he or she is capable of handling. The one who can turn those breaks into a genuine future will be the one worthy of carrying the NASCAR torch into the coming decades.
Perhaps it will be Ty Majeski.
On the night of Dec. 14, just a few weeks after Gordon's final race, the 21-year old Wisconsin racer was the guest of honor at Charlotte Motor Speedway's Speedway Club. It was the second big banquet of the weekend, the first being NASCAR's Night of Champions, where a trio of fellow up-and-comers received championship trophies from various NASCAR touring series.
Majeski was there to receive the inaugural Kulwicki Cup, the culmination of a season-long competition between seven youngsters racing in short track series scattered around the nation. They were selected from a large group of applicants to receive checks for $7,777, cut from a fund established by the family of Alan Kulwicki, the unlikely winner of the 1992 Winston Cup championship and the driver of car No.7.
Kulwicki, too, came from the short tracks of Wisconsin and had to force his way up the stock car racing ladder by no means other than hard work and winning. His abilities as a driver won races, but his skills as a salesman landed sponsorship and his business acumen allowed him to handle the cash when it came in. Kulwicki's Cup victory was the most out-of-nowhere title story in NASCAR history. He was killed in a plane crash barely four months later.
"Now we're looking for someone who can be one those stories, too, like Alan," explained Gibson, a member of Kulwicki's team and now a member of the Kulwicki Driver Development Program's seven-person advisory board, the group that selects the seven finalists. They are currently in the process of picking the 2016 class. "It's about winning, but it's also about how you handle yourself. This job isn't just about being a racer. It's about representing your team, your sponsor, and maybe one day, an entire sport as a NASCAR champion."
Wallace, a longtime friend of Kulwicki's and himself one of the unquestioned faces of his NASCAR generation, quickly interjected. He grabbed the kid who won 18 of 56 races in 2015, all while pursuing an engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin. "This sport needs some help right now. It needs guys like Ty."
Later, Majeski strode to the podium to accept a $54,439 check (7 X $7,777) and the Kulwicki Cup trophy, an award adorned with the likeness of Mighty Mouse, the superhero mascot adopted by Kulwicki and his "Underbird" '92 team.
The tune that played as he made the walk onstage might as well be the theme for Majeski, Buescher, Jones, Elliott, and stock car racing's entire post-Gordon generation.
NASCAR certainly hopes that it is.
We're not worrying at all
We just listen to his call
"Here I come to save the day!!"