Often, when you hear of professional athletes getting their numbers assigned, they almost always pick them unless the number is retired or if a prominent player is already wearing it, but how NASCAR assigns driver numbers is a little different.
NASCAR assign numbers as they see fit. NASCAR offers 100 numbers from 00 to 99. They will be flexible with teams that request specific numbers if they are available. The NASCAR Cup Series has yet to retire a number, but they will hold off on assigning numbers that belonged to notable drivers.
Below, we will give a detailed explanation on how NASCAR assigns numbers to their drivers and the methodology behind it. We will also explore the stories behind famously requested numbers, whether NASCAR has ever assigned the ominous number 13, and if so, how it fared in the Cup Series.
NASCAR assigns car numbers mostly on team or driver requests. If the team or driver does not request a number, they are assigned one randomly. NASCAR own the rights to all the numbers and can choose to assign them however they see fit, including revoking a number from a driver or team if necessary.
At one time, NASCAR drivers even used numbers in the triple digits, given the number of competitors in a single season back during the organization’s formative period. Other drivers, like J.D. McDuffie, chose to be assigned an available number because they were easy to write and memorize. For McDuffie, that number was 70, which he used throughout most of his 29-year NASCAR career.
NASCAR drivers cannot just choose a number and take it with them. Different from what you see in most professional sports today. For example, in the NFL, players who join a different team may buy their number from a lesser-known player who wore it the previous season.
Tom Brady is a good example. When he left the New England Patriots to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,Brady took the field in his familiar number 12 jersey although Chris Godwin wore it in Tampa. Deion Sanders played for 5 teams between 1989 and 2000 and always wore his iconic 21.
As for NASCAR drivers, this is not the case. Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing to co-own Stewart-Haas racing. The number 20 stayed with Gibbs while Stewart finished his career in the number 14 car. Ditto for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who switched from 8 to 88 when he joined Hendrick Motorsports.
One important thing to remember is that NASCAR owns the rights to all the numbers, and they license them to specific teams. They assign numbers to drivers and race teams based on that number’s availability. NASCAR can even revoke a number from a team if they choose to.
Teams must also relinquish numbers back to NASCAR. They cannot transfer the number to another team unless the transfer occurs through NASCAR. NASCAR ultimately assigns and recycles numbers. There is no real system to how they assign them, but drivers and race teams can request available numbers.
If two teams request the same number, NASCAR will fulfill the wishes of the first team that made the request. If one team requested the number, NASCAR will usually grant the team their request.
Let’s go back to 1992, when Rick Hendrick brought on Jeff Gordon as a driver. Hendrick’s team had rights to numbers 5 and 25, and he requested for Gordon to drive a number within that range, which turned out to be the famous 24.
Fast-forward to 2002 when Jimmie Johnson joined the team, Gordon agreed to pay for half the team while Hendrick paid for the other half. Gordon reasoned that Johnson would turn out twice as good as he was, so he and Hendrick picked the available 48. Turns out, Gordon was right about Johnson.
In 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined Hendrick Motorsports and he initially wanted to keep number 8, but his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt refused to relinquish the number back to NASCAR. However, NASCAR had 88 available, which Earnhardt Jr. drove for the rest of his career.
There is a number 13 in NASCAR, though it is not always in use. There are a lot more available numbers than cars to take them, so any driver or team who takes number 13 has chosen to do so. While this is rare, it has been used many times over the years.
Thirteen has always been a number filled with superstition. If you visit hotels, you may notice that in some of them, the floors move from Floor 12 to Floor 14. You will notice the same thing on ship decks. The fear of the number 13 is known as triskaidekaphobia.
And it is more common than you may think. Famous people like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Stephen King are reported to have feared the number. Of course, there is also the old Friday the 13th superstition.
But at least 70 drivers have raced with the number 13. However, of those drivers, Casey Mears (227 races) started five times as many races as the others.
Mears also started in 13th place using the number just once, which occurred in 2016. Robby Gordon is the only other known driver to start a race in 13th place while driving with the number painted on the sides and roof of his car. That start occurred in Bristol in 2000.
The number 13 car has won just one race in NASCAR Cup history as of 2022. Johnny Rutherford won that race, which occurred in 1963. The 40-lap Daytona 500 qualifying race also marked Rutherford’s first career start. As for the Xfinity Series, the 13 car has never seen a top five finish.
Perhaps the most famous use of number 13 occurred in NASCAR when then-Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino entered a partnership with Bill Elliott to create Elliott-Marino Motorsports. First Plus sponsored the car, and their colors were similar to that worn by the Dolphins – white, orange, and aqua.
The team hired Jerry Nadeau to drive, but he never managed to finish better than 21st. Following Nadeau’s departure, Elliott-Marino Motorsports went through several drivers and posted just one top five finish, which occurred at the Phoenix Raceway. The venture only lasted through the 1998 season.
There are no retired numbers in the NASCAR Cup Series. Only the number 61 has been retired in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Series, where Richie Evans, who drove with the number, won an astounding nine Modified championships.
However, NASCAR will engage in the practice of briefly taking numbers out of circulation. Following Richard Petty’s retirement, the series did not use his famed number 43. Between 2001 and 2013, the NASCAR Cup Series did not use number 3, which Dale Earnhardt made famous.
While J.D. McDuffie never won a race, he became a fan favorite for his perseverance, constantly clawing his way through NASCAR season after NASCAR season with limited equipment and sponsorships. This grit made him and his number 70 car famous.
Following his death in 1991, the number was absent from the NASCAR circuit until 2006. It made brief appearances in 2008 and 2009, with Jeremy Mayfield, Jason Leffler, and Mike Skinner all taking turns with the number, and it has not appeared again as of 2022.
NASCAR realizes that retiring numbers could ultimately lead to number shortages, and this is a common concern across sports teams. Suppose they retired the numbers of all drivers who won multiple NASCAR Championships. They would soon run out of numbers to give current drivers.
Instead, it makes more sense for NASCAR to hold off on assigning specific numbers, much like what the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers generally do. The Steelers have not reassigned numbers like 36, 12, 86, or 43 to name a few, but they rarely retire numbers. Throughout the team’s history, they retired just two, once in 1964, and again in 2014.
So, while NASCAR may wind up retiring numbers that once belonged to NASCAR greats, look for them to do so on a nominal basis. But if they have yet to retire famed numbers like Petty’s 43, or Earnhardt’s 3, don’t expect them to retire anything soon.
NASCAR assigns numbers randomly, unless the driver or their team requests a specific number. They will then assign a number on a first come, first served basis. There are no retired numbers in the NASCAR Cup Series. Instead, NASCAR holds off on reassigning numbers made famous by other drivers.
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