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Dale Jr., Danica each face pivotal years in 2017, ESPN’s Craven says

For different reasons, both Danica Patrick, left, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are at crucial career crossroads when the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series commences Feb. 26 with the Daytona 500, ESPN analyst Ricky Craven says.
For different reasons, both Danica Patrick, left, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are at crucial career crossroads when the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series commences Feb. 26 with the Daytona 500, ESPN analyst Ricky Craven says. Associated Press

When the green flag drops Feb. 26 on the 2017 Daytona 500, NASCAR will officially commence a major changing of the guard.

Jeff Gordon, 45, and his 93 career wins and four Cup Series championships have gone back into retirement. Tony Stewart, 45, has retired with his 49 victories and three championships, too.

Carl Edwards, 37, and his 28 career Cup wins have “stepped away” from NASCAR. Greg Biffle, 47, with 19 career wins, has no ride for in the newly renamed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (formerly Sprint Cup).

At a Kentucky Speedway preseason media event Thursday, ESPN analyst Ricky Craven said NASCAR and its fans need to be preparing to say goodbye to more of this generation’s biggest stock-racing stars.

Matt Kenseth is 44. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 42. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are both 41.

“Those are brand-name drivers, top-name drivers,” said Craven, a two-time winner in 278 career starts as a Cup Series driver from 1991-2004. “You are talking about the (New England) Patriots and the (Pittsburgh) Steelers, those types of teams with great, great followings.

“As an industry, it should be a priority to help create the next three or four superstars of our sport. We need (new) ‘brand names’ to replace them.”

Even in a year when NASCAR needs new stars to emerge, Craven believes two of the most famous current drivers — Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick — might be the most intriguing stories to watch.

Due to concussion-like symptoms, Earnhardt Jr. has not raced since he ran 13th at Kentucky Speedway in last year’s Quaker State 400. He plans to resume full-time driving in 2017.

Craven said Earnhardt Jr.’s return is “priceless. There is nothing we could have done that could have (counterbalanced) the loss of Dale Earnhardt Jr. No one in sports moves the needle like Dale Earnhardt Jr. does for NASCAR.”

Few are more attuned to the risks of racing after one has dealt with head injuries than Craven. Concussions shortened the Newburgh, Maine, native’s driving career.

“I feel really good,” Craven said. “I feel great. But, you know, I worry about the long-term effects of concussions. I worry about Dale Jr. because of the nice human being he is. ... But I support him (in coming back as a driver) because he’s a very bright guy also. If he says he is coming back, it is because he is ready.”

Craven’s remarks on Patrick in Louisville attracted national attention, presumably because he said the Cup Series’ lone female series regular is “getting long in the tooth.”

Patrick, who will turn 35 on March 25, has made 154 career Cup Series starts with only six top-10 finishes.

Her considerable fame was launched in her prior career as an IndyCar driver. In 2005, Patrick was the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 before finishing fourth. Three years later, she became the first female driver to win a race, at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, in a major American-based auto racing series. In 2009, she was the first woman to finish on the podium at the Indy 500 with a third-place finish.

“I’m a big supporter of hers,” Craven said. “I want to see her win a NASCAR race. But I feel like she has stalled in terms of her progress.”

One area where Patrick has consistently excelled has been the ability to attract sponsorship dollars. Whether her lack of success in the Cup Series has dulled her appeal in the marketplace will, unexpectedly, be tested now.

Nature’s Bakery had signed a three-year, $45 million deal before the 2016 season to be Patrick’s primary sponsor. The company is trying to void the contract, leaving Patrick and her Stewart-Haas Racing team scrambling.

“Now, she has some headwinds with sponsorship, some challenges,” Craven said. “Our business is predicated on sponsorship. That’s always been an easy lift for her and her team. If that becomes a challenge, then her story becomes a little more difficult.”

Cup series schedule

Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona: 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18 (FS1)

Daytona 500 qualifying: 3:10 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19 (Fox-56)

Can-Am Duel races: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23 (FS1)

Daytona 500: 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26 (Fox-56)

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