Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Nascar’s most popular driver. In fact, of all the active drivers Earnhardt holds the longest running streak of winning the award, having been bestowed the honor 14 times. However, earlier in the season Earnhardt announced his retirement and as he does his final laps on NASCAR’s hallowed tracks, people can’t help but speculate what the landscape of the series will look like once its most popular, and most famous, driver is gone.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. embodies NASCAR’s past and present but no longer its future.

Being the son of a legend is never easy and even more so when that legend is Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Earnhardt Sr. was larger than life and when he died he left behind a large void that no one, not even his son, could fill. Dale Jr. has worked most of his life to come out from under the shadow of his famous father and to be appreciated for being him, not just the son of NASCAR’s biggest star.

Junior does carry with him a sense of the past and in so doing draws in more fans than any other driver. He is one of the last links to the old guard, and many fans feel strongly about the connection to the past that Junior brings.

Dale Earnhardt Junior is his own man, however, and over the years has established himself as a star in his own right. He runs a successful team and has won races at some of the most hallowed locations in NASCAR.

Junior suffered a severe concussion last year at Michigan though and for the first time concern rippled through the pits that the biggest name in stock car racing would not be returning.

Teams and fans alike began to wonder what NASCAR would look like without Junior in it. Junior was adamant, however, that he still wanted to race and win and that he would be back.

True to his word, Junior came back at the first race at Daytona this year. It became clear very quickly though that Dale Earnhardt Junior was different. His driving was more precise and more careful.

The fine knife edge between speed and chaos that Junior has been famous for knowing how to navigate was gone; Junior was being responsible in the car.

The retirement announcement followed shortly thereafter and suddenly it all made sense. Junior was done and NASCAR would have to go on without the name Dale Earnhardt in the field.

Where does NASCAR go without its most popular and famous driver?

NASCAR is facing something it hasn’t faced since 1975, racing without an Earnhardt. Dale Earnhardt Sr. is still one of the biggest names in NASCAR, even 16 years after his death. Dale Earnhardt Jr. carried on his family’s name while making his own way and keeping fans in the seats as NASCAR embarked on a new era of technology, rules, and a new set of drivers.

Now, however, Junior will not be there to keep fans coming back. NASCAR will have to rely on the new drivers and, well, good racing to keep fans coming back and invested in the series.

NASCAR plans to do just that. 2017 rolled out a new set of rules that included breaking each race up into segments, somewhat like heat races. The theory behind that being that the field bunches up and the racing are better, making drivers drive hard from beginning to end, giving fans good racing every single lap. In addition, they have a new crop of drivers that include Chase Elliot, son of former champion Bill Elliot, of the same generation of Earnhardt Sr. The new drivers are good and brought into an environment where they have to race to get the points they need to be able to fight for the championship. NASCAR is banking on this new plan to keep fans coming back and interested in the sport long for many years to come-even without an Earnhardt in the field.