When To Walk Away

Jeff_Burton_Bobby_Labonte_2008
Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte talk at Talladega in 2008. Neither has been to victory lane since that year and might be out of NASCAR next season.

An issue that plagues any athlete is when to call it quits. They’ve spent their entire lives doing one thing, be it play football, hockey, or drive a race car. It’s a tough call to make, deciding when to stop doing the one thing you’ve ever done.

What usually happens is the athlete holds on a little too long and they can’t walk away on their own terms. Sometimes injury forces them away or it gets to a point that no organization wants them.

NASCAR drivers are in a bit of a unique situation, in that they can continue to perform into their 50s or even 60s if they so desire. Because they’re not putting their bodies into harm’s way as a football or hockey player, their careers can go longer.

Dale_Jarrett_ESPN
Dale Jarrett walked away to work in television in 2008

“Fortunately for most race drivers, you still have the ability to do this at 50 years old, and perform very well, Mark Martin is a perfect example. I went until I was 51, Rusty (Wallace) was close to 50, and so you have that ability to do that, so that gets you through a lot of your life. Unlike in other sports, where football players are seldom after 35 years of age, or a lot of baseball players don’t make it to 40 and still performing at a high level. So we’re fortunate in that respect, but that is a lot of it: what do you do? Because this is what you’ve done pretty much your entire life. And I think this next generation is going to show us more of that because I don’t know that we’ll see a lot of them go till they’re 50 and so trying to make that decision as to when they get out because this is what they’ve done their entire life,” says Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Sprint Cup Series champion who walked away after the first five races in the 2008 season.

The problem with that logic though is usually a driver holds on way too long and tarnishes their legacy during their declining years. Darrell Waltrip is the textbook example of a driver who held on much too long.

Waltrip won his final race in 1992. He would race eight more years until retiring following the 2000 season. Beginning in 1998 was a steady decline, as his own team ran into sponsorship issues that forced him to sell the team hastily. He was able to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc., where he scored a top-5 and top-10 finish and showed glimmer of what he used to be.

After that brief stint, as he was subbing for an injured Steve Park, Waltrip joined ISM Racing and finished out the season. Waltrip had to rely on the past champions provisional rule to make the majority of the races after going to ISM Racing. That rule allowed a past champion who’s time was not fast enough to make the race, get into the race in the 43rd and final starting spot.

He used the rule so much that for the 1999 season, NASCAR made a rule to cap the number of times a driver can use it. That resulted in Waltrip missing 12 races over his final two seasons. He never finished better than 11th over those two seasons and his legacy was tarnished in the eyes of many fans.

NASCAR’s record books are filled with drivers who have done the same to varying degrees. Richard Petty, winner of seven Sprint Cup Series championships and 200 races, struggled his final three seasons. Dale Jarrett had a disastrous final full season, missing 12 races after going 12 years without missing a single race.

Ward Burton, winner of five Sprint Cup Series races, including the 2002 Daytona 500, disappeared after the 2004 season. No one signed him for the 2005 season and he tried a comeback in 2007 with Morgan-McClure Motorsports. He qualified for 16 races, did not qualify for 19, and had a best finish of 14th. It took that kind of season for him to walk away from NASCAR in  order to focus on his son Jeb’s racing career.

Currently, we see Bobby Labonte has been bumped by his team as a part-time driver after making 704 consecutive races. The move was done to see if it was Labonte’s driving that is holding the team back or the team itself. Considering that they’ve elected to go with AJ Allmendinger in 2014, it’s easy to connect the dots to them thinking Labonte has lost it. As of this article, there have been no rumors of what Labonte might do in 2014. All we know is Labonte has said he won’t be retiring.

Former driver Rusty Wallace now works for ESPN
Former driver Rusty Wallace now works for ESPN

Former driver and current ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace disagrees with those who think Labonte should walk away. “I don’t believe that Bobby Labonte’s time has come to hang it up. I think he’s gotten himself involved in some situations where it just hasn’t been good for him. In my opinion, Bobby needed to be super hyper-focused on the car itself, and he needed to be more vocal on what he didn’t like about the car. And we all know Bobby’s a champion, we all know he’s a good driver, but for whatever reason, he hasn’t been able to, yet, get up on top of it and command what he needs, in a boisterous way.”

Another driver left in limbo is Jeff Burton, Ward’s brother. Burton has made 685 Sprint Cup Series races and has won 21 of them, his last coming in 2008. He will walk away from his current ride with Richard Childress Racing a year early after this season.

“I still love racing.  I still have a passion for it.  You know, part of the realities are what opportunities are going to be there?  I’m just going to have to see what comes in front of me.  I don’t anticipate doing something that I don’t think will be competitive.  I don’t mind building something.  Actually, I enjoy that.  But at 46, that’s probably not something I look forward to.” Burton said when his decision to leave was announced.

Since then Burton has hinted that he has something lined up for the Sprint Cup Series for 2014, but no one is sure what that might be. Rumors also indicate that he will start doing television in 2015 when NBC re-joins NASCAR, so he has a backup plan as to what to do next.

Having that plan for the future is something that made Rusty Wallace, the 1989 series champion and winner of 55 races, walk away after the 2005 season. “It was a very, very tough situation to walk away. And if I hadn’t had a very, very nice offer from ESPN at the time, I might not have hung it up that quick,” said Wallace on his decision.

Wallace is the only driver who, I have been able to find that, walked away while not only still competitive, but on an upswing. After a disastrous 2003 season that saw him finish 14th in points, the first time in 10 years he was not in the top-10, and 2004 where he won a race, but finished 16th in points, it didn’t look good for his final run. While he did win in 2005, he captured eight top-5 finishes (more than 2003 and 2004 combined), 17 top-10 finishes (best since 2002), and finished eighth in points.

“I had my crew chief Larry Carter telling me daily, ‘what are you doing? What is wrong with you? We’re running great, we’ve done all this and now you want to quit?’ And I told him, ‘Larry, I don’t like watching people that go on too long that just don’t look good on the racetrack, and I do want to go out on my terms, to go out on top,’ but the nice thing I had, I had my dealerships, my offer from ESPN, and my son started racing so I wanted to watch him too, I did plan for my departure but one thing I was never going to let myself do was let my performance go to hell and ruin the image I had created,” continued Wallace.

If a driver lingers too long, it can become painfully obvious they might be the issue. As Jarrett explains that was part of his decision process. “It’s different for everybody and that’s the hard thing. It’s one of the, if not the hardest decisions you make in a professional life is when is that time. You don’t ever really want to stay too long, but on the other side of that, that competitive desire and spirit that you have in you, you want to make sure that you get all of that out of you. And I think that’s the determining factor, it was for me, anyway, that I just didn’t have that desire to go every single week and try to perform. I still loved to race and loved to compete but not everything that it takes to be a Cup driver on a weekly basis. It just takes so much of your time and you start losing that desire. Once you start losing that, then it’s time to go. You need to get out and be away and let someone else take that spot in the race.”

As the 2013 season winds down, we might be at a point where we are witnessing the final runs for some drivers. Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, and Jeff Burton have no plans announced for next season. Burton is close to something for next season, but if these drivers walk into the sunset then the sport will really begin yet another shift in culture.

It could end up being Jeff Gordon, who began his career in 1993 as “The Kid,” who would become the most seniored member of the garage, should those drivers not return. He will be the next driver who will have to make that tough call of when to walk away.

Making that call is very difficult, but can be made easier if you have something else lined up to do. For those who don’t and still need that paycheck, it becomes very sad for fans to have to watch their heroes ruin their legacy in front of their eyes.