Thursday, April 9, 2009

Fuss over No. 8 being parked should remind the media that numbers aren't permanent

It's the biggest news story of the Easter off-weekend in the Sprint Cup Series. The organization formerly known as Dale Earnhardt, Inc. has parked the once famous No. 8 car driven by Aric Almirola due to the lack of funding. Everyone has an opinion on it, from ESPN's Marty Smith and's Jeff Gluck.

The overriding opinion is that it's Teresa Earnhardt's fault that the number taken to prominence by Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no longer in competition. If only she capitulated to Jr.'s demands and gave him half of DEI or let him take the number to Hendrick, then the hoardes of Jr. fans could see that number grace the speedways to this day.

The NASCAR media knows what generates page views: stories on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It's easy to go with a story that pits Jr. vs. Teresa because she doesn't grant interviews. So we get one side of the story. And of course, most of the coverage portrays Mrs. Earnhardt as the evil stepmother, which is exactly how the so-called Jr. Nation wants it.

Mrs. Earnhardt had no obligation to allow her stepson to take that number with him when he left the team his father started for another. She was the owner of DEI and it is the team that secures a car's number, not the driver. And why should she give it up? She obviously didn't have a good relationship with Earnhardt, Jr. or his sister Kelley. When was the last time you did a favor for someone who didn't like you? Especially when that favor would generate that particular person untold millions of dollars and give you nothing in return?

When DEI started as the team Dale Earnhardt drove for in his Busch Grand National races back in the mid 1980s, it used the No. 8. It was his way of honoring his late father Ralph. When Earnhardt picked up Goodwrench sponsorship, it was originally on the No. 8 in the Busch Series. When that sponsorship carried over into the Cup team with Richard Childress, only then did Earnhardt change to No. 3 with his own team.

When Earnhardt, Jr. made his first Busch start at Myrtle Beach in 1996, it was in a No. 31 car. He raced six more times in a No. 31 and twice in a No. 7 in 1997. He moved into the No. 3 in 1998 and 1999 and won two championships. The first time he raced a No. 8 in a NASCAR series was in his limited Cup schedule in 1999.

Sure that's the number he rose to the top of the sport with and the number he used to become a fan favorite. But he didn't use it until four years into his NASCAR career. And he wasn't the first to use it and he wasn't the last to use it.

Contrary to what Jeff Gluck says in his column, NASCAR drivers have never been permanently identified by their numbers. Seriously, is there anyone in the NASCAR Nation that would ever permanently identify Reed Sorenson as "The 43"? Some drivers in today's post-modern era have had the same car number in every race they've ever competed - such as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson - but those types of career-long driver/owner relationships are the exception, not the norm. Most drivers change teams throughout their career. And when they do, they rarely get to pick the number that adorns the side of the car.

Look at the top of NASCAR's all-time winners list and only one of the current top five had the same car number in every one of his wins: Richard Petty. David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, and Cale Yarbourough all won races with numerous car numbers. Even Dale Earnhardt won with other numbers than the No. 3; his first championship came in a car with the No. 2 on it and he even won races in a Ford with the No. 15 on it.

It's a shame EGR had to park the No. 8 team for now. Sure, there is little doubt that car would still be on the track if Jr. was still driving it. Even if Budweiser chose to leave for another team, Jr. could have attracted sponsors and that team would still be marching forward - such as it was.

But that didn't happen. Earnhardt chose to leave. And he chose to leave the No. 8 behind.

Just like Darrell Waltrip left behind the No. 11 when he left Jr. Johnson. Or when David Pearson left the Wood Bros. and they kept their famous No. 21.

It's Mrs. Earnhardt's right to keep requesting the No. 8 from NASCAR. Until she choses to relinquish the right to that number she can do whatever she wants with it, including choose not to put it on the racetrack.

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