- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Now that we know Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin will be done with Nextel Cup racing following 2005, and that Terry Labonte will hang it up in 2006, the focus naturally turns to the next drivers who will eventually retire from NASCAR's top circuit.
It's easy to speculate on when the end will come for the likes of Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader. And anyone guessing within the next five years will undoubtedly be proved right.
But the real wildcard is trying to guess just how long the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and their contemporaries race. Will they race into their late 40s? Or will success and the sport's ever-grueling schedule cause them to get out in their late 30s or early 40s?
The real answer, of course, is that no one -- not even the drivers themselves -- have a definitive idea yet. They may have a plan in mind, but countless athletes have shown that those plans mean nothing.
Some drivers have stayed in the sport too long, believing the next win was just around the corner. Others stayed past their prime once they realized there was big money to be made simply for finishing back in the pack. And since that money was more than they'd made when they were winning regularly, it's understandable that the lure of the almighty dollar was tough to turn down.
But will guys like Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. need to keep racing for every last dollar? Probably not, as they could get out of the car this minute and be financially set for life. Drivers, though, argue that they don't race for money and in some cases that's true.
They do, however, love the competition -- and the adulation -- that comes with life in the fast lane.
Still, Wallace and Martin believe drivers won't last as long as they have in the past. Only time, though, will tell if they're right.
"I feel like drivers are going to retire earlier," Wallace said. "I think there's more money out there. I think there's more opportunity to not have to go as long as we did. I'd say that that will happen."
Martin even has an idea as to how it all will play out down the road.
"I definitely think the next number will be like 40, instead of 45 to 50. And then I think the next wave will be more like 35," Martin said. "It's not gonna change all at once, but the way that racing is today with how technical it is, youth and everything that goes along with that is very important. Whereas, when I came into this thing I had youth and I didn't have experience and what was really important was experience.
"These teams are looking for those guys 35 to 45 years old that have been there and done that and seen that and to give, really, our own version of the technical assistance that now our engineers are able to do. So, yes, I see that age getting younger and younger as we go forward in the future."
Elliott Sadler agrees. He says drivers will begin retiring earlier in the near future, saying it's a trend not unique to racing. As salaries have skyrocketed in just about every sport imaginable, he notes that athletes are able to retire earlier now.
That means the only thing that keeps them going is the love of their particular sport. In racing, he doesn't believe it will be the competition that the drivers are tired of, but the myriad of personal appearances for their sponsors that keeps them on the road -- and away from their families -- seemingly six days a week from February to November.
He also thinks the fact that drivers are getting good opportunities at earlier ages will lead them to retire earlier. Drivers such as Rudd, Martin and Jarrett didn't get first-class rides in their early 20s, so retiring at 35 wasn't much of an option.
"People are jumping on younger kids with talent early in their age and trying to mold them into something they really want to be with and represent," Sadler said. "I can't see me racing to be 45, 46, 47 years old because the schedules are a lot different now than I think when these guys first started racing. I see my age group of guys keep talking that they're gonna retire around 40.
"Maybe the age keeps coming down and it's gonna continue to get harder because there are so many more demands on our lifestyle each and every year as far as sponsorships, as far as testing, racing -- stuff like that.
"If we keep expanding the schedule, that's a lot of time away from home, so I think we want to come into this sport and be competitive and run good and then I'm thinking around 40 or so I might want to own a car by then or do something else. But by then, the way the sport is changing, there are definitely gonna be some 17, 18, 19 year old kids that are ready to get in these cars and can do a good job with them."
It's easy to wonder why a driver would gripe about his schedule, considering he's only at the track on a race weekend from Friday to Sunday. But that's only part of a driver's weekly schedule. While not a weekly occurrence, drivers test at Cup tracks for a day or two some weeks and many teams also test frequently at tracks not on the schedule, where they can test as often as they'd like.
Sponsorship appearances vary from driver to driver and a major part of Earnhardt Jr.'s protracted contract negotiations with his step-mother awhile back focused on the number of appearances he'd have to make per season.
There was a time when drivers wouldn't think at balking at appearances as each one translated into income. But with many of the sport's stars making a fortune from selling T-shirts and diecast cars, there comes a time when enough's enough.
"I've been busier this year than I've ever been," Sadler said recently. "I saw my mom today for the first time in about two months. That's tough for people that usually share a lot of time with their family. I don't see how some of these drivers do it that have a wife and kids at home and they're in school or doing sports and things and they get a report over the phone all the time. That's tough.
"I'd rather try to race to 40, 41 years old and go home and try to raise a family where I can spend some time with my kids. I mean, that's kind of the way I'm looking at it. Will it happen like that? I don't know, but it's tough. Scheduling is tough. We've got a lot of great sponsors on our race cars and they all want a little piece of your time."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Many NASCAR drivers say the future trend will be retiring earlier than the old guard has done.