DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — This 75th season of NASCAR begins Sunday with the Daytona 500 and it comes after what has been a long exodus of sorts.
Since 2016, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Jimmie Johnson have all retired (though Johnson is back). They all followed Mark Martin and the Labonte brothers, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace.
As Kevin Harvick prepares to depart, the stage is open to be seized by the likes of Noah Gragson, watermelon farmer Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez, the only Mexican-born winner in NASCAR history. There is also Austin Cindric, a Team Penske fixture who won last year’s Daytona 500 as a rookie, and Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver competing at NASCAR’s top level.
NASCAR’s trick is to get America to care about these new drivers.
“Lack of Stars,” Denny Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, cited that as NASCAR’s biggest challenge in a poll conducted by The Associated Press ahead of NASCAR’s 75th year. Hamlin enters the season needed two wins to reach 50 for his career, which would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list.
“No one even knows who the stars of our sport are now,” Hamlin wrote. ”They only know the old names (from NASCAR’s heyday). This comes from a list of issue, but until we actually have ‘superstars’ our sport will always be niche.”
Joey Logano is a star and he just won a second Cup Series title for Team Penske last season. Others hoping to be in the mix include Tyler Reddick, whoch moves from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI to drive alongside new teammate Bubba Wallace.
AJ Allmendinger returns to the Cup Series after a brief retirement followed by competing in the Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing. And Ty Gibbs will make his debut driving for his grandfather’s team just three months after his father, Coy Gibbs, passed away in his sleep following his son’s Xfinity Series championship.
Harvick was thrust into the spotlight as Dale Earnhardt’s replacement just five days after the NASCAR hero was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick is making this season his farewell. He will move into the Fox broadcast booth next year for an unknown length of time: NASCAR is currently negotiating its television package for 2025 and beyond.
Harvick is just 10 Cup Series starts away from 800, which would make him just the 10th driver in history to hit that milestone. But his move off the track completes an exodus of star power that brought NASCAR into living rooms across America during the healthiest days of the sport.
The two-time Daytona 500 winner returns after two years in IndyCar and he turns 48 in September. He counts the 24 Hours of Le Mans among the handful of races he plans to run, and his involvement is primarily in making Legacy Motor Club, which he co-owns and was once Richard Petty’s storied team, a contender again.
Driving for Legacy this year are Erik Jones, a promising young Michigan driver who had been run out at Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2020 season, and the feisty Gragson, a White Claw-swilling kid from Las Vegas with a big personality off the track and few cares on it.
Chastain grabbed global attention for a wall-riding gamble last October, a video game-style move now dubbed the “Hail Melon” that snagged him the final spot in last year’s championship race. The tactic he used — deliberately crashing into the wall for momentum — has since been banned by NASCAR.
“That was the longest wreck of my life. It was successful, but I have no desire to ever do that again,” Chastain said after the ban was announced. “Selfishly, I’m glad I get to be the only one that goes down in history as the only driver to successfully do it. It really mattered and it really paid off.”
Chastain was the championship runner-up to Logano, the father of three who celebrated by purchasing himself a new head of full hair.
All eyes will be on Kyle Busch, who left Joe Gibbs Racing after 15 seasons in a sponsorship snag.
He made his debut for Richard Childress Racing at last week’s Clash and finished third. Days later, Busch revealed he’d been detained in Mexico during an offseason vacation for having a handgun in his luggage. He then unretired from Xfinity Series competition.
Busch and Logano are the only active drivers with multiple Cup championships, and a change of scenery has Busch poised for a very big year. One Cup victory this season would give Busch at least one win in 19 consecutive seasons, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.
Ty Gibbs replaces Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing.