Gorch on the Porch: NASCAR heroes are going away

Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNSNASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is slightly irritated with his car as he waits on members of his team to make adjustments during the Monster Energy All-Star race practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway Friday, May 19, 2017 in Concord, N.C.

On this awesome weekend — one of my favorites with a pair of great events to keep every red-blooded American racing occupied most of Sunday — I can’t help but think back to the good old days.

It was the early 1990s when I started watching NASCAR. I was a racing fan, but mostly IndyCar. Actually back then it was called CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) or Champ Car, and it was darn popular.

I went to my best friend, Chuck’s parents house in the Miller Beach (Gary) area for an Indy 500 party, and it was glorious seeing legends like Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr., win the greatest race around.

Sometime after those years, I gravitated toward NASCAR because of a young, clean-cut driver named Jeff Gordon.

He wasn’t like the other NASCAR regulars, such as Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip to name a few. There are multiple reasons that I’m not going into. I just liked him, and my wife of 23 years did, too.

And he managed to win four championships between 1995 and 2001.

I also covered some NASCAR races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway in one of my previous newspaper jobs, and I covered Gordon winning at Chicagoland.

Gordon retired after the 2015 season, and now is an analyst on FOX during races.

He grew up in Indiana, so that could be why I liked him.

And then there’s Tony Stewart, who also still lives in Columbus, Indiana. I kind of liked him because of his cavalier attitude.

I also liked the fact that he came over from IndyCar after succeeding in that series. He came over the stock cars and won championships. I also covered the Brickyard 400 when he won in 2007.

Stewart retired after the 2016 season.

Are you sensing a theme here?

All the while I was following Gordon and Stewart, one driver was voted the most popular among NASCAR fans every year. That’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., who, despite not winning any championships, gets the most cheers at every track when he takes the lead.

Junior hasn’t been taking the lead much the last couple years, with a serious concussion happening last season. The end result is that he’s stepping away from the sport after this season.

I actually started liking Junior more after his dad died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. And that’s a little weird since I really disliked Earnhardt for having the same aggressive, unlikable attitude as Stewart.

Sticking to the theme, yes I covered a Chicagoland Speedway race that Junior won.

In case the readers who enter the News-Dispatch Fantasy NASCAR contest were wondering, there’s a remote possibility that the retirement of Gordon, Stewart and Junior in successive years might have me down a little, and therefore not really in the mood to write NASCAR related columns.

Hey, I get emotional about sports, okay?

But this reminiscing also has a purpose. You see, I’m betting I’m not the only NASCAR fan feeling this way. The best drivers and some very popular drivers are leaving the sport, and it’s definitely part of the reason NASCAR isn’t filling stadiums as much, isn’t getting the TV ratings it used to, isn’t getting as much exposure on sports news shows.

Sure, there’s always a crop of talented new drivers or athletes ready to have the torch passed to them. Right now in NASCAR, it’s Chase Elliott, who drives Gordon’s No. 24 car, and Kyle Larson and Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon.

I’m trying to have the same enthusiasm for Elliott or Larson as I did for Gordon 24 years ago, but it’s not as easy when you’re older.

Maybe one of those young drivers will win the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday evening in dramatic fashion and make me smile about NASCAR again. Then again, I will be in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday, and probably won’t care who wins the 600-mile race.

I will find a way to pay attention to the Indy 500 earlier in the day, though, and see how former Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso does in his first Indy 500. His arrival at the Brickyard has resulted in huge crowds and an upward trend for the open-wheel race. Maybe Gordon, Stewart and Junior retiring will send me back to IndyCar.

In that case, go Juan Pablo Montoya.

Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at sgorches@thenewsdispatch.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.

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