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Gosselin: Age is creeping up on NASCAR’s superstars; Who will carry the torch?

Rick Gosselin Dallas Morning News

Eddie Gossage is going to feel old this week.

And a tad vulnerable.

Gossage makes his living in NASCAR, and one of his sport’s biggest stars is now just a few pit stops away from retirement.

This is Jeff Gordon’s final season in the No. 24 car. Twenty-four years, 92 victories, 78 poles and four Cup championships are enough for Gordon. He returned to Texas Motor Speedway to compete for the 29th time in his career Saturday night at the Duck Commander 500 and finished seventh. His 30th and final race at TMS will come in November.

Gossage is the president of Texas Motor Speedway, and seeing Gordon this weekend will take him back in time to another era and another track. Gossage was the vice president at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the 1990s and recalls driving to Atlanta to see Richard Petty’s final race.

That also happened to be Gordon’s first race – and Gossage played bumper tag with Gordon driving through the Carolinas to Atlanta. Gordon was 22 then but was on his way to earning the nickname “Wonder Boy” from Dale Earnhardt Sr.

“Somewhere along the way,” Gossage said, “Jeff went from Wonder Boy to the sport’s elder statesman. I don’t know if we weren’t paying attention or what.

“Having been around him his entire career causes me to look back at the changes in my life during that time – most notably building Texas Motor Speedway – and realize I’m not 17 anymore, either. Personally, I’d like to see him hang around just to make me feel younger, if nothing else.”

But there is another reason. Gordon is 43. So are Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth. Greg Biffle is 45. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 40, and Jimmie Johnson turns 40 this year.

And that’s where the vulnerability sets in for Gossage. Some of the biggest stars in the NASCAR galaxy are aging. That has to be a concern for anyone who owns a track and promotes the sport.

Will the next generation of drivers be as successful and as popular as the current generation?

But Gossage has been down this path before.

“There was a period of time when you realized the careers of Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and others were at an end,” Gossage said. “We were wringing our hands. We were worried that nobody would connect the way Richard did.

“But along comes Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt to bridge the gap until we got into the Jeff Gordons and Jimmie Johnsons and Dale Jrs. Now Jeff and Tony and those guys have connected and resonate with the fans.”

So any vulnerability will be short-lived.

Brad Keselowski won the Sprint Cup in 2012 at 28. He’s won eight races since then, including the Auto Club 400 in California in March. Joey Logano won the Daytona 500 this year and heads to Texas in second place in the Sprint Cup standings. He’s only 24.

Keselowski, 31, sits fourth in the standings. Aric Almirola also is 31 and holds down ninth place. David Ragan is 29 and finds himself in 12th. Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Trevor Bayne also are in the top 25 and all are 25 years of age or younger.

“Like in every sport, there’s a pipeline full of good, young talent coming up,” Gossage said. “As a promoter, I’m hoping there’s personalities coming through that pipeline as well. You can have the talent, but you also have to be able to connect with the audience to help the sport. So, yeah, you do worry about that.

“We’re probably seeing a passing of the torch in a big way this season. But you have to figure they’re there. They just have to grow in confidence and get some experience, then they can spread their personality a little bit. The right thing for a young guy right now is to keep his mouth shut and learn. And that’s what they’re doing.”

Gordon isn’t done teaching yet. He has won two poles this season and finished in the top 10 in each of his last four races.

“Jeff casts a big shadow,” Gossage said. “The great thing about Jeff is that he started out his career strong and as he went along, his shadow kept getting bigger and bigger. We’re going to miss him. He kept raising the bar for everybody. Everyone in that garage knows that he sets the standard.

“Somebody else will step into that role after he leaves this year. But it’s a big shadow.”

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