The word that Dale Earnhardt Junior will retire after 2017 and the disappointing crowd at Richmond has renewed concern in racing about its loss of popularity. An angle unexplored is the angle of the drivers who weren't there - promising drivers who died early or who did not achieve success - and the question - what if those drivers had lived and succeeded?
Rob Moroso won the Busch title in 1989 but failed in Winston Cup and was killed in a drunk driving accident near the end of his one season in Cup.
Tim Richmond, Davey Allison, and Alan Kulwicki all achieved success - but did not live to see more
John Andretti's illness has brought back memory of a talented racer who won twice - and leaves one wondering if he had won more races; that ability was there.
Bobby Hamilton won in the Busch Series, Winston Cup, and the Trucks - and was competitive enough to win more.
No driver caused more controversy and achieved dramatic success the way Ernie Irvan did. Crashes and victories defined Irvan's career, a career nearly ended with a nearly fatal crash at Michigan in 1994; in 1999 at that same track another bad wreck finally did end his career. It seems certain had the 1994 crash not happened Irvan would have won a lot more races and likely still be racing in 2004 and perhaps later.
Kenny Irwin replaced Irvan with Robert Yates' team - his career at the Cup level never went anywhere and his death in 2000 left the sport once again wondering "what if". 1997's Truck 250 at Homestead showed real potential was there for success at the Cup level
Tim Steele exploded in the 1992-2001 period in the ARCA series, winning 41 races and showing a daring in traffic not many drivers can show, as seen here in 1996's ARCA 500k at Talladega. His attempts at NASCAR never panned out.
Steele showed what could have been in NASCAR at Vegas in 1997.
Jeff Purvis, Buckshot Jones, and Joe Nemechek raced to the win at Talladega in 2000. Jones was the most controversial due to an ugly feud initiated by Randy LaJoie. Purvis sparkled in ARCA and the Busch Series on the superspeedways. Nemechek won the Busch title in 1993 and won four Winston Cup races, and the likeable native of Florida always added charm to the garage area.
Purvis' career ended in this 2002 melee at Nazareth
Racing and sports in general are to a great extent driven by the ultimate unanswerable question - What if? One can't of course be governed by such a question yet at times it is worth asking - and one certainly can think NASCAR's present struggle with popularity would have been at least somewhat mitigated had success followed the drivers who in the end weren't there.