Page may turn on era of Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Ken Schrader
Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte haven't announced plans to race in 2014, meaning the end of the NASCAR season could also mark the end of an era.
Though it's unclear what the future holds for Burton and Labonte, Martin has indicated Sunday's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway could be his last. Another veteran, Ken Schrader, has said Homestead will mark his final Sprint Cup start after 763 races, though he hasn't been a full-time Cup driver since 2006.
So what's next for some of NASCAR's most familiar faces?
"We are going to go film a movie about three old guys in Vegas," Burton said with a laugh, referring to the plot of Last Vegas. "I'm thinking that might work. Mark would be boring as hell, though he would be in the gym every morning."
"I'm so excited," Martin cracked after hearing Burton's comment. "I love those guys anyway, and I like Vegas, so I'm looking forward to that."
It will be odd to see a race without Martin, Burton, Labonte or Schrader, 58, in it. At least one of the four has been in every Cup race since the 1985 Daytona 500.
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"Yeah, I think it's going to be different, and that's OK," Burton said. "When I came in, a spot was created for me somehow; part of that is through older guys moving on. It's just the natural cycle of things."
ESPN analyst and 1999 champion Dale Jarrett said the departure of the veterans likely would have a more profound impact behind the scenes because Martin, Labonte and Burton had been sounding boards for younger drivers and strong voices in the garage.
"It is going to be a big change," Jarrett said. "I don't know we've quite seen a season end with that type of leadership gone from the inside. NASCAR was always willing to listen to those guys. It's going to be a sad time.
"I know there were younger drivers who went to them when they had things they didn't feel they could get NASCAR's ear as good as Mark Martin or Jeff Burton or Bobby Labonte could. You're going to lose that, and it'll be interesting to see who takes up that slot."
While other professional athletes peak in their 20s and usually have careers wind down by their late 30s, NASCAR drivers can race with success long past that time. Jimmie Johnson, 38, and Matt Kenseth, 41, have spent most of the last 10 weeks racing each other for the title; only a few Cup stars are in their 20s.
But eventually — in part because of lack of desire and the effects of age on eyesight or reaction time — drivers realize it's time to go.
"I can still drive a race car pretty fast, but I'm not the driver I was at my peak, and I know it," said Martin, 54. "Maybe for a while I didn't, but I know it (now). I'm not saying I can't run good, but I can feel it in everything I do – every time I get up and walk across the room, I can tell I'm not 35. And anybody that says they can't, I'd like to be sippin' off some of their juice, because I can tell."
Martin has been competitive this season. He won a pole position at Phoenix International Raceway this year and is 26th in the standings — ahead of drivers such as Danica Patrick and David Ragan — despite missing eight races with his part-time schedule.
He plans to do preseason testing in place of Tony Stewart, who is recovering firom a broken leg, in January and attend most of Stewart-Haas Racing's test sessions next year. Whether he'll drive at any of those tests is unclear.
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Burton, 46, is in a different situation. He wanted to race for another year when it became clear there was no room for him at Richard Childress Racing, so the 21-time race winner said he was in talks to at least drive a partial schedule, though he's not ready to announce his plans. Regardless of what he does after 20 full-time seasons, he'll remain involved in NASCAR, he said.
A long racing career boils down to desire regardless of age, Burton said.
"The older you get, the more other things matter," he said. "Racing still means a lot to me, but for me to sit here today and say it means the same thing to me that it meant when I didn't have a daughter getting ready to go to college or a son that is racing, those things do play a role.
"If you have talent, I don't think talent goes away. Talent doesn't change. It's more the passion you are willing to bring to it."
As for 49-year-old Labonte? After 21 career wins and the 2000 Cup championship, Labonte acknowledged his best path might be in the Camping World Truck Series if no opportunities materialize in Cup. If he were to win a truck title, Labonte would become the first driver to win championships in all three of NASCAR's national series.
Running a truck "would be something I probably wouldn't have thought of three or four years ago, but today I'm like, 'That's not a bad thing,' " said Labonte, whose final 2013 start came last weekend at Phoenix.
Labonte said if Phoenix turned out to be the last Cup race of his career, he'd be disappointed but would move on. He recalled when Ernie Irvan said he hated Labonte once because "he always thought I would take his ride."
Now, Labonte is in the position of an older driver with an uncertain future.
"I think it is (a changing of the guard), but it's also that we're not 35 trying to do it," he said. "It's just kind of the way it is at some point in time."
Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck
Contributing: Nate Ryan