They say that racing is in your blood. For most of these drivers, it is all that they have ever done...tinkered with cars since their boyhood. That may justify the reason why it is extremely tough to walk away from the most competitive form of auto racing in the United States.
Several NASCAR superstars of the 1980's and 1990's are having a difficult time walking away from the sport. When you look at some of the drivers that are returning in 2009, whether it is on a full-time basis or just part-time, it is rather surprising considering that NASCAR has supposedly evolved into a young man's sport.
Bill Elliott announced his retirement from full-time competition following the 2003 season. Nevertheless, he continued to compete on a part-time basis in 2004 with Evernham Motorsports. When Elliott walked away from the No. 9 ride in 2003, he was on top of his game, winning at Rockingham in the final month of the season. In 2005 and 2006, he continued his partial schedule, driving for Evernham Motorsports and Front Row Motorsports. The performance was not there, and 'Million Dollar Bill', or 'Awesome Bill from Dawsonville' was a mere field filler.
In 2007, Elliott began driving for the Wood Brothers in select races, hoping to facilitate the team from a performance standpoint. With Elliott behind the wheel, the venerable No. 21 Ford improved, but it was nothing dramatic. Elliott returned to the Wood Brothers in 2008 for a partial schedule. In 2009, Elliott is expected to compete in at least twelve races.
It is good to see Elliott at the racetrack, and he will always be a legend, but you cannot help but question how his sticking around has affected his legacy. When you think of Bill Elliott, you want to think of his super speedway dominance in the mid-1980's in the red Coors Ford Thunderbird, or him turning a lap that surpassed the 212 miles per hour mark at Talladega in the pre-restrictor plate era. You do not want to remember Elliott as the driver that used up his past champion's provisionals, and was lapped by the leaders ever fifty laps.
Terry Labonte is another name that comes to mind when thinking of drivers that seem to be having a difficult time hanging up their helmet. He relinquished his full-time ride with Hendrick Motorsports following the 2004 season, but remained with the organization to run a partial schedule in 2005 and 2006. Since stepping away from a full schedule, Labonte has driven for Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Hall of Fame Racing, and Petty Enterprises.
Labonte will drive for the upstart Prism Motorsports in the 51st running of the Daytona 500. He recently admitted that he is interested in adding to his workload in 2009.
"I wouldn't mind running eight, ten, or twelve races, something like that. It would depend on who it was. I've got to know them. I had a blast last year. It was actually fun," said the two-time champion.
Of course, you have the irresolute Mark Martin. Now fifty years old, Martin announced his 'Salute To You (fans) Tour' in 2004, as the 2005 season was supposed to be his final season. When Kurt Busch asked for his release from Roush Fenway Racing in August of 2005, Jack Roush needed another driver, and nobody available was more qualified than Martin. He agreed to return to the No. 6 Ford for one last season.
The problem with Martin was the fact that he was still ultra-competitive, qualifying for the Chase for the Championship in 2004, 2005, and 2006. He still wanted to race against the world's greatest drivers. He signed with the now defunct Ginn Racing to compete in a limited schedule in 2007, and stayed with the team in 2008, even though Ginn Racing was absorbed by Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. In fact, Martin replaced the mega-popular Dale Earnhardt Jr in the No. 8 Chevrolet.
When Martin raced, he was competitive, nearly winning on several occasions. By the summer of 2008, he decided to return to full-time competition, but this time he will endeavor to win the elusive title with Hendrick Motorsports, in the car that, ironically, Terry Labonte used to drive.
Martin's success at the half-century point in his life is reminiscent to Bobby Allison, who was still contending for wins up until a career-ending injury at Pocono in 1988. Allison was fifty years old at the time of his devastating injury, and could have possibly raced until he was in his mid-fifties.
Unfortunately, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte are hanging on a little longer than they should, similar to Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty. Well, at least the two stock car luminaries are still having a blast.