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It’s all in the number(s)




 

 

I know the media frenzy is now over about where Dale Jr. will be driving next season, but there is still plenty concerning his contract with Hendrick Motorsports to keep the presses rolling.

Budweiser may or may not come on board with Jr., but apparently there are several companies out there willing to put their logo on the hood of Jr.’s car next season when it rolls out for the first time at Daytona.

While Jr.’s legion of fans would love for him to keep the Budweiser sponsorship, their biggest concern now seems to be what number that will be on the side of his Hendrick Chevy. We all identify Jr. with his red Bud car, but when you really stop and think about it, it’s the number eight on the side of the car that the fans really associate with Earnhardt.

NASCAR owns the numbers used in the sport and it sells them to the teams. The numbers then become the teams’ property as long as they compete in the sport. Owners and drivers enjoy campaigning the same number year after year as it allows them to build a loyal following, not only to the team but also to the team’s sponsor.

The best example in the garage area of a number being easily identified with a particular driver or team is the #43 Richard Petty made famous during a career that featured 200 wins and seven series titles. When he retired after the 1992 season, his organization decided it did not want another driver to crawl behind the wheel of car with the #43 on the side of it. Instead, it changed the team’s number to 44 and in the process lost much of its identity.

The following year the team brought the 43 out of retirement and even though Richard wasn’t behind the wheel, whenever you saw the car it still stirred up memories of when it was the car to beat on race day. Bobby Labonte now drives the #43 Dodge, but he would be the first to tell you the car is still identified with Richard.

Earnhardt Jr. now drives the #8 for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and, like the Petty’s #43, that number has a long family history. When the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. started DEI, the number he asked for from NASCAR was 8. Dale Sr. chose that number because that was the number that his father, Ralph, campaigned during his racing career.

The #8 definitely belongs to an Earnhardt, and according to NASCAR that Earnhardt is Teresa who owns DEI and the rights to the number. During the press conference when Jr. announced he was moving to HMS, he said he would love to take the number with him and that they would be talking to DEI about the possibility of securing the rights to it.

If DEI is willing to let the number go, the real winners will be Jr.’s “Red Army” that wears the #8 so proudly. Look around on race day and you will see more red 8’s on shirts, hats and tattoos than the rest of the field combined. Earnhardt’s fans resemble a gang wearing “their” colors on race day, making the number an Earnhardt Jr. number and not a DEI number.

Letting Jr. have the number may not be such a bad idea, as it would give whatever driver that takes his ride a chance to start his own legacy with DEI. It would also, no doubt, add a few dollars to DEI’s bank account as the company is in a great position to demand a hefty price tag for giving up the highly sought after digit.

So you see, just when you thought the drama centered on Dale Jr.’s plans for 2008 was over, another chapter begins. It may not be as an important deal as deciding for whom to drive, but you do get the feeling both Earnhardt and his fans want to see the familiar #8 on the side of his Chevy when it unloads to begin next season.

Crunching the numbers: Kyle Busch must now begin the hunt for a new home next season, but as far as driving goes, he brings just as much to the table as the man who is replacing him. In his first two full-time seasons in the series, Kyle posted two wins and made the Chase for the Championship last season by finishing 10th in the final point standings. Earnhardt’s first two seasons produced five wins and an eighth-place finish in the final standings. Whoever signs Busch will get a very gifted driver who just needs to get a handle on his emotions.

Race Preview – Event: Toyota/Save Mart 350. Track: Infineon Raceway (1.99-mile road course, 10 turns). Date: June 24, 5 p.m. TV: TNT. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Jeff Gordon.

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