He added: “We go 38 weeks now, with really intense competition. It’s almost nonstop.”
Off the track, the most popular drivers, like Johnson, are also swamped with commitments to sponsors, the press and social media. The scramble for sponsor money has become almost as intense as the racing on the track; losing deep-pocketed longtime backers like Home Depot, Lowe’s, DuPont, GoDaddy and Budweiser dented the income potential for stars like Stewart, Johnson, Gordon, Patrick and Earnhardt Jr.
For midlevel racers, in Earnhardt’s estimation, the income hit has been worse — up to 90 percent.
Gordon acknowledged that some drivers would rather retire than “take a step back” in what they are paid.
“I assure you, though, there are still guys being paid tens of millions to drive these cars,” Gordon said. A select group, to be sure, that might include Harvick, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. He added, “Talent still matters.”
But there is no shortage of up-and-coming talents hankering to drive for a fraction of the previous going rate.
Johnson said, “When I started out, I would have driven for free; in fact, I would have paid to have that ride I got.”
Ominously, wrecks are a growing concern — not only for the ruinous economic toll on financially challenged teams, but also for the physical toll on drivers. It’s the era of the multicar crash, the Big One, when NASCAR’s close-quarters racing can result in chain-reaction melees.
Repeated head injuries caused Earnhardt Jr. to step back after 18 Cup seasons. Patrick estimated she had “more than a dozen concussions” in her crash-plagued career; diminishing results also cost her sponsorship. Gordon, who retired at 44, said worsening back pain helped push him into the Fox Sports broadcast booth.