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Pick a Number, Any Number: How Numbers Are Assigned in NASCAR

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In NASCAR, some car numbers are as iconic as those of manufacturers, sponsors, or drivers. Whether it’s a white three on a black background, a white nine with the letter E hanging off the back, or a yellow 24. The drivers, the cars, and the numbers work harmoniously to market the sport and its sponsors. 

But how does this system work? Who decides? This article explains how such an essential aspect of NASCAR has come to be.

What is the purpose of numbers in NASCAR?

From a sporting perspective, the numbers are used the same as those on a football field. Numbers help fans, spotters, teams, and officials know who is in what car and where they are on the track. Historically, cars had consistent paint schemes, but as the sport has changed, that has changed, too. Now, with most cars looking different every week, the numbers have become even more critical from an optical standpoint. In recent years, NASCAR has also introduced nameplates to the car’s rear and/or front windshield. This was first introduced to the sport in 2013 at the Cup level and subsequently in the Xfinity and Truck Series in 2015. However, as cars gain more primary sponsors, in some cases for one race at a time, the car numbers have further grown as a marketing tool.

Looking at it from the business side, it is sometimes easier for a team to sell a shirt with their number in their selected typeface rather than picking one sponsor for merchandising. This also creates a brand for teams; in other forms of motorsports, teams run similar-looking cars to help gain recognition, be that the navy Red Bulls, Papaya Orange McLarens, or red Ferraris. In NASCAR, especially modern NASCAR, numbers and fonts build an easy visual to represent a team.

For example, let’s take a look at Spire Motorsports. In the team’s less than a decade on track, they have established an eye-catching and memorable typeface that lets you know whether it’s a truck or Cup car that that driver drives for Spire.

How are numbers assigned, distributed, and tracked?

Put simply, NASCAR owns the car numbers and allows teams to use them. Unlike Formula One, no driver has a claim to a specific number unless their team allows it. In Formula One’s case, the reigning world champion driver has the right to have car number one for the season following their championship. Every year, NASCAR and its teams in each series agree to lease specific numbers for on-track use.

This lease also comes with rules for using numbers. Some key rules about NASCAR’s numbering system are simple and easy to understand. For instance, every car must have a number, you can’t share numbers, and a team’s number must range from zero to 99. To expand on that last point,, numbers can also be 00-09, though these are less common to see on a race weekend.

Teams can also have a number without owning a charter. Charters have numbers tied to themselves. Since the charter system was created, tracking how the numbers tied to charters have been renumbered has become relatively easy. For example, at Hendrick Motorsports, the 24 began life chartered as the five, and the nine began life chartered as the 24 before renumbering for the 2018 season.

While NASCAR technically owns the numbers, teams have a say in what numbers they use based on availability. These choices emerge for different reasons, such as a trend within the team, like Front Row Motorsports’ use of the 34, the 38 and occasionally the 36. The choice could come from sponsorship, like Richard Childress Racing and Jack Daniels ’07 car that raced from 2005-2009. It could be due to driver preference, such as Chase Elliott running the number nine as a family tradition. However, in many cases, it comes down to the numbers individual legacy.

While retiring a number may be a sign of respect in other sports, in NASCAR, continuing to use the number after a driver’s retirement can encourage fans to remain loyal to the team. This trend of retaining numbers after the driver has departed is not by any means the standard. After his retirement in 1992, Richard Petty planned to retire the 43, leaving Petty Enterprises to run the STP 44 for 1993. This would ultimately only last one season, with the legendary number returning in 1994.

Usually, the fans have to be the loudest when calling for numbers to be retired, as was the case with the 24 upon Jeff Gordon’s 2015 retirement and, more notably, the three following Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001.

Richard Childress Racing and the three car exhibit two crucial freedoms of owning a number in NASCAR. First, teams can renumber a car during the season. Famously, Kevin Harvick, upon driving in relief of the late Earnhardt, drove the 29, which Childress chose from a list of available numbers. Secondly, teams can retain a number without using it. Childress did so with the three until his grandson Austin Dillon was ready for the Cup Series in 2014.

Teams can also transfer or sell the number to another team; a notable example was the frequent discourse between fans in 2007 about whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. would continue to race the eight car at Hendrick Motorsports upon his announced departure from Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Unfortunately for loyal fans of the eight car, DEI would hold onto the number for the following season, and HMS would have the Robert Yates Racing 88 transferred to them for the 2008 season.

That being said, you may be asking yourself? “Didn’t Dale Jr. recently get the rights to the eight?” This is true; however, it is an entirely different type of ownership. Dale Jr. has applied to retain the trademark for the design of the eight from his DEI days, not the number currently run by RCR.  In another example, while Kauling Racing has the 31 car, they cannot use the classic RCR 31 as that typeface for the 31 is trademarked by RCR.

So, if teams can change the numbers, can they change them temporarily or for a one-off race?

This has happened multiple times in NASCAR history. In recent times, this most commonly occurs in the All-Star Race. Last year, Kevin Harvick, with the blessing of Richard Childress, drove the 29 for a one-off for his final All-Star race. In 2016, Kyle Busch drove the 75 in the All-Star Race to commemorate M&M’s 75th anniversary. A good example of different numbering rules working together is the 2011 All-Star Race. Jimmie Johnson was set to drive the five-car in a promotional effort for sponsor Lowe’s. However, the five was teammate Mark Martin’s number. Since teams can not run the same number multiple times in one race, Martin would drive a dormant number that Hendrick had retained from its past, the 25.

This has also happened in points races, like in 2013, when Aric Almirola drove the 41 instead of the 43 at Martinsville in honor of then-newly elected NASCAR Hall of Famer Maurice Petty.

Conclusion

While NASCAR numbering can be confusing, it is a relatively logical system. Teams can do what they please within a relatively liberal set of rules. As the sport continues to change its presentation and regulations, this system has remained and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

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