Starting next season, Chase Elliott’s car will bear the same number his legendary father once used. Longtime fans will easily remember the number 9 and think of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. Along with 44 wins and a championship, Bill Elliott was a 16 time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award.
Sports fans are funny about numbers. Football fans will forever associate 34 with Walter Payton, and the 18 with Peyton Manning. NBA fans think “Michael Jordan” when they see the 23. In baseball, 3 is forever associated with the Great Bambino and no one anywhere is allowed to use the 42 in deference to game changing legend Jackie Robinson. Racing’s no different. We’ll always associate the 43 with Richard Petty, the 24 with Jeff Gordon and the 3 with Dale Earnhardt.
It’s not that long ago that some fans recoiled a bit to hear that Austin Dillon would use Earnhardt’s old number. The sentiment is easy to understand, even if the Intimidator used the 2 and the 15 as well. Sports fans are just funny that way and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. The 3 is kind of a funny deal anyway, as Junior Johnson used it in his heyday and it was Johnson who brought Earnhardt and Richard Childress together as a driver and owner tandem. Earnhardt inherited it when he took the wheel from his boss who used it as a nod to NASCAR’s original Junior.
As for the younger Elliott, it’s cool he gets his dad’s old number. As a result of this change, 2018 rookie William Byron will assume the 24, a number synonymous with his boyhood hero Jeff Gordon. It’s one of those funny circle of life deals.
When talking about racing numbers, I actually think it’s good that numbers never get retired. It provides the competitor of today to pay homage to their heroes. Besides, when you think about the rampant retiring of numbers by the Yankees and the Celtics, it’s kind of ridiculous what today’s players are left with. I mean, where does it stop? I say, do a ring of honor in the stadium, or a banner bearing the number, but keep it in circulation. Racing’s a trickier deal, because of the finite number of competitors. You figure most major leagues have 30 some-odd teams and it gives them a greater number of well, numbers to work with. You’ll never see two of the same number out on the race track, unless someday NASCAR goes the way of the local track, and you start seeing a 77x.
Numbers in sports is a funny thing isn’t it? My high school soccer playing son finally gets the 7 this year- a rabid fan of the famous soccer 7, Christiano Ronaldo, after having to settle for a 9 or an 11 in the past. Of course, I tell him, now he has to live up to it. I’m sure it’s a similar thought in the minds of Dillon and Elliott, and perhaps one reason Dale Earnhardt Jr. never clamored for the 3. It let him be his own guy.