Today, NASCAR has really become a game for young people. Each year, younger and younger riders are pushed into the Cup Series and experienced drivers are displaced. At the age of 46, Matt Kenseth is currently the oldest driver on the track – and only drives in part time. Legends such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are just some of the seasoned drivers who have called it a career in recent seasons to make room for younger drivers to take over their cars. But even with the youth movement in NASCAR, some drivers have hung up their driving gloves too early. Whether the reason was a bad free agent market, injuries or other aspirations, these 12 drivers decided to retire far too early.
12. Ricky Craven
Few NASCAR careers had more ups and downs than Ricky Craven. He drove for one of the dominating NASCAR teams and then ran for several unsuccessful teams before retiring after the 2005 season at just 39. Yes, Craven’s career has gone. His 2004 season in the Cup Series was bleak, with a best of 16 and he was fired by PPI Motorsports before the end of the season. He spent the 2005 season in the Truck Series with Roush Racing, won a race before spending several seasons in suspension and finally decided to retire.
Craven is best known for his recent bout with Kurt Busch to win in 2003 in Darlington, but this was the last bright spot in his Cup Series career. So yes, you can argue that Craven was not very good and whom it is important for him to retire young. But let’s face the facts. His last Cup team, PPI Motorsports, was awful and gave him garbage gear to drive. Sure, Craven was never a superstar, but if he had been with another team in the early 2000s, he would probably have had much more success before being forgotten.
11. Greg Biffle
Yes, you are right. Greg Biffle is not retired technically, but I doubt we’ll ever see him again. He says he will only race for a top team and a top team will never sign him. So for all intents and purposes, HE IS RETIRED.
Biffle was a relative late riser of NASCAR and debuted in the truck series at the age of 29. He won both the Truck and Xfinity Series championships and celebrated great successes in the Cup Series (though he has never won a title). Biffle won 20 races and had 149 top ten in 244 career races, making him one of the most successful NASCAR riders in the 2000s and 2010s. After the 2016 season (the worst in Biffles career), car owner Jack Roush made the decision to close Biffles No. 16 team, leaving him with no job. Biffle claimed that he had several teams that contacted him, but he refused to drive for anything less than a Nascar flagship team. This essentially meant retirement for Biffle, as there simply were not many open seats.
Yes, Biffle was 46 when he was forced to retire, but if he had got the ride he wanted, with a team like Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports, he would have had some more successful years.
10. Marcos Ambrose
I was so excited when I heard about Marcos Ambrose in 2006. An Australian road racer wanted to drive the complete schedule of the truck series? Register me! I immediately became a fan of the guy and followed his career closely.
Ambrose was a late-career NASCAR dealer at the age of 29 and had never raced a stock car. That did not stop him from succeeding. In 2006 he made his debut in the truck series and was until 2009 main driver of the Cup Series. In 2011, he won his first Cup race at Watkins Glen and underpinned this in 2012 with another victory in Watkins Glen. These would be the only two victories of his career, but overall he was an above average driver.
Ambrose decided to return to Australia after the 2014 season. He was just 38 years old at the time. Many fans did not understand his decision to retire, as he had done better than Richard Petty Motorsports. But the future of the team was uncertain and he wanted to be closer to his family home. He retired with 46 top ten finishes in 227 races, which made him a serviceable driver given his short career.
9. Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick took the NASCAR world by storm in 2013 when she started to drive full time in the Cup Series. After a pretty successful career in Indycar she seemed ready to make her place in NASCAR. Unfortunately, Patrick’s NASCAR career did not go as she had hoped. She fought hard and never was more than a mid-pack rider. In 191 career races she dropped out with only seven top ten finishes.
Well, with so little success, why would I say that you retire too young? She should almost never have been there. But let’s face it, she was a marketing machine. Patrick had so much more money to earn in the race through merchandise sales and endorsement deals if they made it out for a few more years. Sure, money is not everything – but it sure is great! She also had modest success, and with the way NASCAR works, she could probably have become an above-average driver. The deaths of small teams and the lack of competition among the single-wagon teams have led many mediocre riders to achieve decent goals.
No, she was never so great, but Danica Patrick definitely retired too early. After all, she brought some new eyeballs into the sport, with her marquee status as one of the rare riders.
8. Rusty Wallace
Yes, Rusty Wallace was old when he retired. In fact, he was 48 years old. And yes, that’s a fair age to retire from NASCAR. But Wallace had just finished his most consistent season in four years when he retired in late 2005. He shocked everyone by finishing 8th in the points race and having many strong placings. Several media believed that Wallace would withdraw his decision to retire after a strong season, but he clung to his weapons and hung them up.
If Wallace had stuck around, he would probably have ridden his momentum from 2005 to several more successful seasons. Even in his late forties, Wallace still had the talent to compete and used very competitive equipment at Penske Racing. For Wallace, the 48-year-old was too young to ride in the sunset.
7. Dale Earnhardt junior
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Cup career began immediately in 2000, when he won at the Texas Motor Speedway in just his 12th start. A month later, he again won in Richmond and consolidated his place as one of the top drivers of NASCAR. He raced in the Cup Series until 2017, qualified for the playoffs several times and has been voted the most popular NASCAR rider ever since 2003. In 2016 Earnhardt started to have problems with concussion symptoms after several serious crashes. He sat in the second half of the 2016 season and returned to the race in 2017, which would be his last season when he announced his retirement in April this year.
Earnhardt would retire at the end of the race without winning an overall point championship in the Cup Series, the ultimate prize for any rider. Earnhardt was only 42 years old at the time of his retirement, an age in which many drivers are still very successful. He left a lot on the table by retiring so young and probably having several more successful years. However, concussions are no joke, so maybe he has made the best decision for his long-term health.
6. Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart appeared in the 1999 NASCAR Es Cup Series and immediately caused a sensation by becoming a multi-year forerunner. In 2002, he won his first championship and two more, before retiring after the 2016 season. But as good as Tony Stewart’s entire career was, the last three years of his career were really hard to watch. He suffered several injuries, a series of bad finishes and was involved in a tragic unlawful death trial following an incident on the track.
Stewart decided to leave NASCAR after the 2016 season, in which he qualified for the playoffs, although he missed several races due to injury. Stewart said he wanted more of his team to be involved as a reason to retire, but most fans believe that the real reason was the rash of unfortunate incidents that happened in his last three years in the sport. If things had gone differently, Stewart would probably have a few more successful years behind him. Unfortunately, he decided to retire at the age of 45.
5. Brian Vickers
Brian Vickers is a bit different from the other riders on the list, as his retirement was not really a choice. Vickers struggled with blood clots in the second half of his NASCAR career, forcing him to retire long before he was ready. His last full season in NASCAR was temporarily offside in 2014, before his clot problems reappeared. In the 2016 season he drove several times as a relief driver for the injured Tony Stewart and reached in Martinsville a top ten place.
Vickers was not a NASCAR superstar, but he won an Xfinity Series Championship in 2003 and won three Cup races before leaving the sport. Unfortunately, Vickers was just 32 years old when he finally left NASCAR. It is unclear whether Vickers would have continued to be successful in NASCAR as many of the more competitive rides were filled with young, aspiring riders. Still, it is an absolute shame that Vickers disappeared from NASCAR at such a young age.
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya, or JPM, as I like to call him, is undoubtedly one of the greatest racers in human history. He won the Monaco Grand Prix, two Indy 500s, the 24 Hours of Daytona and a CART Championship. In 2007 he made the leap to NASCAR with Chip Ganassi Racing and was immediately successful. Although JPM only scored points once in the top ten and was never really a legitimate threat to a championship, he was still an above-average NASCAR rider. He only won two races in his career, but in almost half of his races in the top ten.
After the 2013 season, JPM decided to switch back to Indycars with Penske Racing and leave NASCAR behind. He was just 37 years old at the time. Had he stayed in NASCAR and worked his way through Chip Ganassi Racing, JPM could have become a legitimate title contender.
3. Junior Johnson
Junior Johnson is one of the most successful people in NASCAR history. He is a legendary car owner who drove cars for drivers like Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Geoffrey Bodine and Terry Labonte. As a driver, Johnson is one of the most successful competitors in the history of the sport. Johnson won 50 of his 313 races, meaning he won about every sixth race he competed on. He never won a title, but his dominance on the track is still under discussion today.
Johnson drove extensively in the 1950s and 1960s, but decided in 1966 to call it a career and focus on the car ownership. He was 34 years old. Yes, he called it a career in old age at the age of 34. He probably had dozens of races to win and could have run for several championships.
2. Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon was a favorite in NASCAR from the moment he appeared, until the day he retired. He won four championships and 93 races. Gordon finished in all but two seasons in the top ten of the scoring and finished in his last season the third place in the standings. Gordon was still one of the NASCAR elites on the day he decided to hang up his driving gloves, so his decision to retire was a shock to many. Upon retirement, Gordon joined NASCAR in Fox’s broadcast team for Cup Series races, a job he still holds today.
Although retired, Gordon has been a relief rider for Dale Earnhardt Jr. on several occasions during the 2016 season, racing the Daytona 24 Hours in 2017 and winning the race. Gordon has expressed an interest in continuing to drive part-time in selected events that do not conflict with his schedule. Gordon is still in his racing premier and if he had not retired, he would probably still win races and fight for championships. 44 was just too young to hang it up.
1. Carl Edwards
After the end of the 2016 season, Carl Edwards shocked the NASCAR community by announcing his resignation. Well, to be fair, he actually used the term “Hiatus”, but everyone was shocked, regardless. Edwards decided to hang up his helmet after a season in which he won three races and finished fourth. Indeed, Edwards had finished in the top ten of the last three seasons in the last three seasons.
Edwards debuted in the 2004 Cup Series and ran for 12 seasons in the series, winning 28 races and earning 223 top ten finishes. Edwards was one of the most popular drivers in the sport and was still an aspiring star at the age of 37. But Edwards decided to quit while he was ahead and to leave the sport in 2016. Fortunately, Edwards still has time to return to NASCAR as sponsors have always jumped to support him, and a large number of team owners would likely hire a car for him. Maybe one day we’ll see Edwards back on the track, but right now he likes to retire.