Present day NASCAR has really become a young person’s game. Each year there are younger and younger drivers being moved up to the Cup Series and veteran drivers are being pushed out. Currently, Matt Kenseth is the oldest driver on the circuit at age 46 — and he only races part-time. Legends like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are just a few of the veteran drivers that have called it a career in the past few seasons to make way for younger drivers to take over their cars. But even with the youth movement in NASCAR, several drivers have hung up their driving gloves too early. Whether the reason was a poor free agent market, injuries, or other aspirations, these 12 drivers decided to retire way too early.
12. Ricky Craven
Few NASCAR careers had more up and downs than Ricky Craven’s. He raced for one of NASCAR’s dominant teams, and then ran for several unsuccessful teams before retiring following the 2005 season at just 39-years-old. Yes, Craven’s career did fizzle out. His 2004 season in the Cup Series was dismal, with a best finish of 16th 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, winning one race before spending several seasons in limbo and eventually deciding to retire.
Craven is best known for his last lap battle with Kurt Busch to win at Darlington in 2003, but this was the last bright spot in his Cup Series career. So yeah, you can argue that Craven wasn’t very good and who cares that he retired young. But let’s face facts. His last cup team, PPI Motorsports, was awful and gave him garbage equipment to drive. Sure, Craven was never a superstar, but had he been with a different team in the early 2000s, he would have likely had a lot more success before fading into obscurity.
11. Greg Biffle
Yes, you’re right. Greg Biffle technically isn’t retired, but I doubt we’ll ever see him again. He says he’ll only race for a top-tier team and a top-tier team is never going to sign him. So for all intents and purposes, HE IS RETIRED.
Biffle was a relative late-comer to NASCAR, making his truck series debut at the age of 29. He would go on win championships in both the Truck and Xfinity Series and have great success in the Cup Series (despite never winning a title). Biffle won 20 races and had 149 top tens in 244 career races making him one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers in the 2000s and 2010s. Following the 2016 season (the worst of Biffle’s career), car owner Jack Roush made the decision to shut down Biffle’s No. 16 team, leaving him out of a job. Biffle claimed that he had several teams contact him, but he refused to drive for anything less than a flagship NASCAR team. This essentially meant retirement for Biffle as there just weren’t many open seats.
Yes, Biffle was 46-years-old when he was forced into retirement but had he gotten the ride he wanted, with a team like Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports, he’d have had several more successful years.
10. Marcos Ambrose
I was so excited when I found out about Marcos Ambrose in 2006. An Australian road-race specialist was gonna drive the full truck series schedule? Sign me up! I immediately became a fan of the guy and followed his career closely.
Ambrose was a late-comer to NASCAR at the age of 29 and had never driven a stock car. That didn’t stop him from finding success. He made his truck series debut in 2006 and was a full-time Cup Series driver by 2009. He won his first cup race in 2011 at Watkins Glen and backed that up with another win at Watkins Glen in 2012. These would be the only two wins of his career, but overall he was an above average driver.
Ambrose decided to head back to Australia following the 2014 season. He was just 38-year-old at the time. A lot of fans didn’t understand his decision to retire, as he was over-performing in his ride at Richard Petty Motorsports. But the team’s future was uncertain and he wanted to be closer to his family back home. He retired with 46 top ten finishes in 227 races making him a serviceable driver considering his short career.
9. Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick took the NASCAR world by storm in 2013 when she began racing full time in the Cup Series. After a fairly successful career in Indycar, she looked poised to make her place in NASCAR. Unfortunately, Patrick’s NASCAR career didn’t go the way she hoped it would. She struggled mightily and was never more than a mid-pack driver. She retired with just seven top-ten finishes in 191 career races.
Now, with such little success, why would I say she retired too young? She almost never should have been there in the first place. But let’s be honest, she was a marketing machine. Patrick had so much more money to make in racing through merchandise sales and endorsement deals if she stuck it out for a few more years. Sure, money isn’t everything — but it sure is great! Besides, she had moderate success and with the way NASCAR is going she likely could have become an above average driver. The death of small teams and lack of competition among single-car teams has led to many mediocre drivers having decent finishes.
No, she was never that great but Danica Patrick definitely retired too early. At least she brought a bunch of new eyeballs to the sport, with her marquee status as one of the rare female drivers
8. Rusty Wallace
Yes, Rusty Wallace was old when he retired. In fact, he was 48. And yes, that is a fair age to retire from NASCAR. But Wallace had just completed his most consistent season in four years when he retired at the end of 2005. He shocked everyone by finishing 8th in the points race and having many strong finishes. Several media members thought that Wallace would rescind his decision to retire following a strong season, but he stuck to his guns and hung it up.
Had Wallace stuck around, he likely would have ridden his 2005 momentum 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, 48 was too young to ride off into the sunset.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr’s cup career took off right away in 2000 when he won at Texas Motor Speedway in just his 12th start. He would win again a month later at Richmond and cement his place as one of NASCAR’s top drivers. He would race full time in the Cup Series until 2017, qualifying for the playoffs several times and being voted NASCAR’s most popular driver every year since 2003. In 2016, Earnhardt began experiencing issues with concussion-like symptoms after several hard crashes. He sat out the second half of the 2016 season and returned in 2017 to race in what would become his final season as he announced his retirement in April of that year.
Earnhardt would end up retiring without winning an overall points championship in the Cup Series, the ultimate prize for any driver. Earnhardt was also just 42-years-old at the time of his retirement, an age when many drivers are still very successful. He left a lot on the table by retiring so young and likely would have had several more successful years. However, concussions are no joke, so maybe he made the best decision for his longterm health.
6. Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart showed up in NASCAR’s Cup Series in 1999 and immediately made a splash by becoming a perennial front runner. He won his first championship in 2002 and would win two more before his retirement following the 2016 season. But as good as Tony Stewart’s overall career was, the final three years of his career were really tough to watch. He suffered several injuries, a string of poor finishes, and was involved in a tragic wrongful death lawsuit following an on-track incident.
Stewart decided to leave NASCAR following the 2016 season, one in which he qualified for the playoffs in despite missing several races due to injury. Stewart cited wanting to be more involved as an owner of his team as his reason for retirement, but most fans believe the real reason was the rash of unfortunate incidents that occurred his last three years in the sport. Had things gone different, Stewart likely would have had several more successful years. Alas, he opted to retire at age 45.
5. Brian Vickers
Brian Vickers is a bit of a different story than the other drivers on this list, as his retirement wasn’t really by choice. Vickers had struggled with blood clots throughout the latter part of his NASCAR career, forcing him into retirement long before he was ready. His last full season in NASCAR was 2014 before his blood clot issues reappeared, sidelining him temporarily. He raced a few times during the 2016 season as a relief driver for the injured Tony Stewart, scoring a top-ten finish at Martinsville.
Vickers wasn’t a NASCAR superstar, but he did win an Xfinity Series championship in 2003 and won three cup races before stepping away from the sport. Unfortunately Vickers was just 32-years-old when he left NASCAR for good. It’s unclear whether or not Vickers would have continued to be successful in NASCAR, as many of the more competitive rides were filled with young, up-and-coming drivers. Regardless, it’s 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 overall race car drivers 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 jump to NASCAR with Chip Ganassi Racing and found immediate success. Although JPM only finished in the top ten in points once and was never really a legitimate threat for a championship, he was still an above average NASCAR driver. He won just two races in his career but finished in the top-ten in nearly half of his races.
Following the 2013 season, JPM decided to jump 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 through the kinks with 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’s a legendary car owner who fielded 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 sport’s history. Johnson won 50 of his 313 races, meaning he won about every sixth he race he competed in. He was never able to win a title, but his dominance on the track is still talked about today.
Johnson raced extensively throughout the 1950s and 1960s but decided to call it a career and focus on car ownership in 1966. He was 34-years-old. Yeah, he called it a career at the youthful age of 34. He likely had dozens more races left to win and could have competed for several championships.
2. Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon was a darling in NASCAR from the moment he showed up until the day he retired. He won four championships and 93 races. Gordon finished in the top ten in the points standings in all but two seasons and finished third in the standings in his final season. Gordon still ranked among NASCAR’s elite the day he decided to hang up his driving gloves, which is why his decision to retire was a shock to many. Post-retirement, Gordon joined NASCAR on Fox’s broadcast team for Cup Series races, a job he still holds today.
Although he was effectively retired, Gordon did race several times during the 2016 season as a relief driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and raced in the 2017 24 Hours of Daytona, actually winning the race. Gordon has expressed interest in continuing to race part time in select events that don’t conflict with his broadcasting schedule. Gordon is still in his racing prime and had he not retired, he would probably still be winning races and battling for championships. 44 was just too young an age to hang it up.
1. Carl Edwards
Following the conclusion of the 2016 season, Carl Edwards shocked the NASCAR community by announcing his retirement. 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 in points. In fact, Edwards had finished in the top ten in points the prior three seasons.
Edwards made his Cup Series debut in 2004 and ran full time in the series for 12 seasons, winning 28 races and amassing 223 top-ten finishes. Edwards was one of the sport’s most popular drivers and was still a rising star even at the age of 37. But Edwards decided to quit while he was ahead and leave the sport in 2016. Fortunately, there’s still time for Edwards to return to NASCAR, as sponsors have always jumped to support him and a host of team owners would likely field a car for him. Perhaps one day we’ll see Edwards on the track again, but for now he is happily enjoying retirement.