DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. &
Goodbye Dale Jarrett. Hello Juan Pablo Montoya.
NASCAR's old guard is fast disappearing, making way for a cadre of hot, young driving stars.
Bill Elliott and Mark Martin are only racing part time these days. Dale Jarrett plans to retire after the first five races, and Sterling Marlin might be forced to find a rocking chair if he can't find a full-time ride.
Longtime fan favorite Darrell Waltrip retired after the 2000 season, and Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte and Ricky Rudd have since followed.
So, where does that leave the millions of fans who rooted for those drivers, joined their fans clubs and bought their souvenirs?
"I talk to a lot of fans, and they say, 'You were the guy I pulled for. I don't like some of the new stuff going on, and I just don't watch no more,'" said Wallace, who remains part of the sport as a team owner in the Nationwide Series and a commentator for ESPN/ABC broadcasts. "That's disappointing to hear, but it's just the truth."
Two-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson is still here, along with teammate and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, new Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and two-time champion Tony Stewart &
by far the most popular drivers still in the sport full time.
And there's an influx of new drivers, including open-wheel stars Montoya, Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., as well as youngsters like 22-year-old Kyle Busch, 22-year-old Reed Sorenson, 24-year-old Brian Vickers and 27-year-olds Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin.
But with TV ratings down and empty seats at a number of tracks, it seems the sport is missing some of that old star quality.
"The only person that has ever inherited any fans is Dale Jr.," said Waltrip, now a color commentator on Fox's NASCAR telecasts. "Every other person has to earn their fans. You have to earn your fan base. It takes time, but we've been through these transitions year after year after year, time after time."
Junior Johnson, one of NASCAR's greatest drivers, agreed a driver change nearly always forces a change in fans.
"Let's just say Jeff Gordon retires at the end this year," Johnson said Wednesday. "Well, his fans might pick somebody else, but the guy that replaces him will bring his fans with him. That's always been the way it worked."
Sterling Marlin fan Ben Naggatt of Atlanta was watching practice Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway and knows he'll soon need to choose a new rooting interest.
"It comes with the sport, I guess," Naggatt said.
"You can't race forever. The rules in NASCAR are constantly changing and drivers need to adjust to that, and the I think the fans need to do the same thing."
But loyalties run deep.
Asked whom he will cheer after Marlin retires, Naggatt held up a can of beer from Marlin's former sponsor and said, "I'll always be a Coors Lite fan."
Bobbie Taylor of Allentown, Pa., said she became a Kevin Harvick fan after Dale Earnhardt was killed.
"He was driving the old man's car," she said of the Richard Childress Racing driver. "He's had his troubles, but I'm a Richard Childress fan, so I kind of stick with him."
Waltrip said it's just a natural progression.
"When (David) Pearson and (Richard) Petty and Bobby (Allison) and all of them retired, they said, 'Well, there goes the sport. Who's going to take their place?'" Waltrip said. "Here I came, here Dale came, here Bill came, Rusty, Terry, and we carried the sport right on down the road.
"And here we are at one of those transitions again, where those young kids are going to have to come in. They're going to have to respect the sport, the people in it, and they're going to have to gain the respect of the fans. When they do, we'll be back rolling again."
Driver departures mean changes for NASCAR and the fans
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. &