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Racing After the Final Flag: NASCAR Drivers Who Took a Part-Time Schedule After Retirement

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NASCAR is unlike many sports for some obvious reasons and some less-than-obvious reasons. One of these is the opportunity for its athletes, the drivers, to continue competing after retiring from full-time racing. With the recent news that Martin Truex Jr. is retiring from full-time racing and still leaving the option open to return, we thought it would be important to highlight those drivers who competed after their full-time careers ended, just like he’s planning to do.

Clint Bowyer

It’s easy to start with a recent example, but it feels appropriate, as Bowyer has not entirely ruled out getting back behind the wheel.

Clint Bowyer has always been a personality in NASCAR. His early career racing for Richard Childress showed a driver with the skill and will to go all the way, while his Cup career showed the signs of a great driver who could never hook the big one.

Bowyer won his first Xfinity Series race in 2005, a season in which he finished second in points. He pulled double duty in the Xfinity Series and Cup Series in 2006 and 2008, winning the Xfinity Series Championship and finishing fifth in Cup points in the latter season.

Despite Clint’s declining statistics in 2009 and 2010, Bowyer signed with Michael Waltrip Racing to drive the 15 car, culminating in a second-place finish in points in 2012. However, the 2013 Richmond crash scandal would begin MWR’s slow downfall. By 2016, Clint’s career looked to downturn, and he found himself racing for HScott Motorsports, but the departure of a legend would revive Bowyer.

With Tony Stewarts’ retirement after the 2016 season, Bowyer would find new life driving the flagship 14 from 2017-2020. Clint would win two races and have three Playoff appearances in the 14 car. Upon his retirement from full-time racing in 2020, Bowyer made his way to the Fox booth. But that retirement would only last until 2024.

In late May 2024, Spire Motorsports handed Bowyer the wheel of their no. 7 truck, a truck known for its rotating pool of drivers. Not only would the race be in a series he had won before, but it was at Nashville Superspeedway, a track he had not only won at but had nine top fives in nine attempts in the Xfinity Series.

Bowyer would arrive at the track flanked by longtime sponsor Rush Truck Centers and individuals in the stands, the garage, and the booth rooting for him. He would qualify 11th, and while the race itself wouldn’t be what Bowyer would have wanted, wrecking on a restart and dealing with damage for the rest of the outing, he left the door open to racing again. Saying that’s not how he wants to go out.

Time will tell if Clint gets behind the wheel again. However, other part-time racers have seen struggles trying to find that one last good race.

Harry Gant

Handsome Harry Gant has always had an odd aura around him. As a driver who began racing in NASCAR’s National Series at age 33, there was always something different about him.

Gant did not race full-time until 1980, at age 40, driving the now iconic Skoal Bandit 33 for Hal Needham. He had a competitive season in 1981 and won two races in 1982. Gant would even rattle off seven more wins by 1989 when Leo Jackson took ownership of the 33-car. By then, Gant was losing his luster, having only seven top-ten finishes in 1987 and 1988.

Gant responded to this slump by winning—and doing so unprecedentedly. Gant would turn 50 in 1990; after that birthday, he won eight races in three seasons. This included an unseen run in September 1991, when Gant won four races in a row, and finished second in the final race of the month at North Wilkesboro.

With the changing of the guard in NASCAR in the early 1990s, Gant would make the tough decision to retire after 1994.  Gant would finish 25th in Cup Series points that final season; however, he would win his final Xfinity Series race that same season.

While Gant was retiring, NASCAR plotted a schedule for its new NASCAR Supertruck Series for 1995. That season would see success for several struggling former and current Cup Series drivers.

Gant would take a shot at the Truck Series in 1996. During the season he would race in 11 races, finishing with four top-tens, and a best finish of eighth at Richmond and Flemington.

While he didn’t win any races, Gant showed that a driver of any age can still go out and run with the young guns. This is a trend retired drivers would soon begin following.

Terry Labonte

Texas Terry Labonte was the type of driver a fan of any age could get behind. Beginning his full-time Cup Series career in 1979, he quickly won his first race in 1980. The pair would win the 1984 Cup Series Championship by racing for Billy Hagan.

Before leaving Hagan in 1987, Labonte would win seven races and have more than a good enough resume to race for Junior Johnson. This partnership would only last till 1990, when Labonte would race for Richard Jackson for a lone season and return to Billy Hagan from 1991 to 1993. This period was bleak for the now 36-year-old former champion. However, a lifeline was given to Labonte to drive Rick Hendrick’s flagship number five.

Labonte and sponsor Kellogg’s would prove to have made the right move, winning six races in 1994 and 1995. For 1996, Labonte would return to the top of the mountain, winning two races and grabbing 21 top-fives and 24 top-tens along the way. This championship would welcome the last run of dominance in Labonte’s career.

He would win five more races by 1999, then transitioning to a winless drought until his final win in 2003. With young hotshot Kyle Busch on the horizon for the five-car, 2004 would be Terry’s final behind the wheel of the five.

However, Terry wouldn’t go quietly. Rick Hendrick would give him a part-time schedule for 2005 and 2006, driving the 44 car, which is the number from his original days with Billy Hagan. Nothing special would happen for Terry in 2005, the only highlight being a top-ten for Joe Gibbs Racing at Richmond while filling in at the 11 car. However, in 2006, Terry was blessed with a chance that very few retired drivers get. One last shot to win.

While driving part-time for Hendrick in 2006, Labonte picked up extra work driving the 96 car for Hall of Fame Racing, a team owned by Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach and sponsored by companies based in Texas.

The races and equipment weren’t what was promised. That was until Sonoma. Labonte would qualify a quiet 37th, but by the end of the race, the legend had led 17 of the 110 laps that day and finished third. It was not quite the finish fans had hoped to muster, but it was enough to show that he still had it, even while making right turns.

Unfortunately, this would be one of the last seasons with a consistent plan for Terry, as from 2007 to 2010, he would start races for Michael Waltrip Racing, Petty Enterprises, Prism Motorsports, and other assorted teams lost to time. The only highlight of this period was an eleventh-place start at Sonoma for the Pettys in 2008.

2011 would grant Terry a small amount of consistency for the end of his entire career. This season began his time racing for FAS Lane Racing and its 32 entry. Labonte would begin to make starts exclusively at tracks he felt he could compete at, such as Daytona and Talladega. He would make 20 starts for the team before retiring after his final race in the fall of 2014 at Talladega. At this race, Labonte and the team, now known as Go Fas Racing, would shock the world by qualifying ninth but finishing 33rd one lap down.

While it wasn’t the most successful end to a legendary career, many fans have taken comfort in Labonte retiring on his own terms.

Bill Elliott

Bill Elliott’s time as a part-time Driver could have been a career of its own. In his time driving before retirement from full-time racing, Bill had won a Cup Series title alongside two Daytona 500s.

The end of his career was as successful as any driver could have hoped. He had joined Dodge and Evernham Motorsports in 2001 bringing a pedigree to the new guys in NASCAR. Elliott would win four races driving the no. 9 Dodge. But by 2003, young Kasey Kahne was ready for the next level of NASCAR, and Bill would hand the wheel to the next generation.

Elliott would not leave Evernham in its entirety. For 2004 and 2005, Bill drove the number 91 Dodge for Evernham in twelve races. In addition, in 2004, Bill drove the number 98 Dodge entered under his name in three races. These two seasons would show few notable results, with the entry being a glorified R&D car for Evernham. The most prominent event during this time was a one-off start for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2005 Budweiser Shootout.

2006 was Elliott’s most chaotic part-time season. During this season, he drove for MB2 Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing, and John Carter Racing. Despite the chaos of 2006, 2007 would bring consistency to the veteran driver.

From 2007 to 2010, Elliott ran a part-time Schedule for the Wood Brothers in the iconic 21. While the pair did not win any races or have any top-five or top-ten finishes, the team always had a fast car in practice and qualifying.

This combination kept both driver and team afloat during turbulent times. After Elliott’s departure, the team won the 2011 Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne behind the wheel, showing that the speed they had shown all those years was no fluke.

2011 and 2012 would be Elliott’s last years running part-time. He would run races for Phoenix Racing, NEMCO, and Whitney Motorsports. Elliott’s final race would be at Daytona, a track at which he had shown so much success, even in his twilight years. Driving for Turner Motorsports, Elliott would qualify sixth. He would maintain a good pace early on, but as the race continued, Elliott found himself in a lap 125 crash and finished 37th.

Despite the end of his time behind a Cup car and to the surprise of many, Bill Elliott’s last NASCAR National Series start would be at Road Atlanta in the Xfinity Series. In 2018, GMS Racing put Elliott behind the wheel of the number 23 in his home state.  He qualified 23rd and finished 20th, giving his fans one last memory.

While Bill did not have the success some had hoped for in a part-time schedule, he, unlike some, was still fast behind the wheel and still the same old Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.

Mark Martin

Retiring once is one thing. Retiring twice is an entirely different thing. Mark Martin would do this during his time in NASCAR. While his post-full-time driving stints aren’t as messy as others, they still capture what happens when a driver still has some left in the tank.

The Batesville, Arkansas native cut his teeth on the short tracks of the Midwest before attempting the NASCAR Cup Series Schedule in 1981 for five races for Bud Reeder before taking on the ride full time for 1982.

However, this would be a short-lived partnership, and Martin would piece together a part-time 15-race schedule for 1983. Left with no options for 1984, Martin would not start in the Cup Series again until 1986, a five-race schedule driving for Jerry Gunderman.

1987 would turn a new leaf for Martin. Now 28 years old, he would get a full-time Xfinity Series Schedule. After amassing three wins, five top-fives, and thirteen top-tens, Martin would return to the Cup Series full-time, driving for Jack Roush in 1988.

This is the period Martin is best known for. He would race the six car for Roush from 1987 to 2006, winning 35 races. This included twelve top-five points finishes, including a stretch of seven from 1993 to 1999. But by 2006, Martin, now 47, would look to have his final full-time season.

After a solid final season in which Martin finished ninth in the standings, Mark embarked on his first season as a part-time driver in 2007. This would be for the newly named Ginn racing.

The team, previously MB2 Motorsports, would field the 01car sponsored by the U.S. Army. The 01 had seen moderate success with Joe Nemechek behind the wheel the prior three seasons, including a win at Kansas. However, in Mark’s first race behind the wheel, he would have the car’s most memorable moment.

Mark Martin was known as the driver who couldn’t win the big one, be it a Cup Series Championship or the Daytona 500. However, in 2007, coming to the flag Mark had the lead coming out of turn four at Daytona. Coming to the line beating and banging on Kevin Harvick’s Chevrolet, Mark would come up short again, this time by .02 seconds.

Having a second shot at Daytona was one thing, but what if the recently retired driver had one more shot at a championship?

This fantasy would come to life following the 2008 season, in which Mark raced the eight car for DEI following a merger with Ginn. Mark had run well in the eight car, and Hendrick Motorsports needed a driver for 2009. Mark answered the call. Initially, it was just for one season, but that one season would become something much more.

In 2009, driving Rick Hendrick’s flagship car, Mark did what some thought he would never do again. He won. Mark would win five times that season. He also found himself in a fierce battle with teammate Jimmie Johnson for the NASCAR Cup. It came down to the wire, but Mark would again be the bridesmaid. But he didn’t finish the season with nothing, he left with new life and a new contract.

The following two seasons would be different from what 2009 was; Mark would have just a 16th and 22nd finish in points in 2010 and 2011. With Kasey Kahne set to drive the five-car in 2012, Mark would return to a part-time schedule.

In 2012, Mark drove the 55 car part-time for Michael Waltrip Racing. He would have good runs at tracks like Kansas, Dover, Michigan, and Phoenix, sitting on the pole four times in his 24-race schedule. He led the most laps at the fall Michigan race before a lap 65 accident took him out of contention.

2013 would be Mark’s final and wildest season racing part-time. Mark would race the 55 as planned. He would also pilot the 11 car for an injured Denny Hamlin. However, Mark would depart MWR to drive the 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing. Tony Stewart was out with a broken leg, and Mark would ultimately drive the final race of his career in the 14 car at Homestead.

While Mark’s part-time schedule wasn’t as wild as some, his path had some twists and successes along the way.

Conclusion

Some drivers have difficulty letting go of the wheel, but not all drivers succeed in a part-time schedule. Some of these examples were successful, others less so. Despite what history will tell today’s drivers, those who can’t call it quits immediately will do what they feel is best to end their career. Nevertheless, the part-time veteran will always be a part of many race weekends to come.

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Kauy Ostlien

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