- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Of the myriad unanswered questions surrounding Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s move to Hendrick Motorsports, it seems the one given the least consideration by fans and media is which car number HMS will forego in favor of Junior's new digits.
The team isn't prepared to divulge that just yet. It is no small decision and is quite emotionally charged, given team owner Rick Hendrick's personal history with the numbers in question.
Unlike other sports, where most every jersey number, 1-99, is available on every team, there is just one of each car number in NASCAR. One, period. For the entire series. And a lot rides on the number from a licensing and promotional standpoint.
Obviously Jeff Gordon's No. 24 and Jimmie Johnson's 48 aren't going anywhere. So that leaves the 5 and 25, both of which carry deep emotional ties to Hendrick and have been synonymous with the company's revolutionary multicar concept for more than two decades.
Car No. 5 was Hendrick's first as a Cup owner in 1984. The All-Star Racing Chevy. During that time he has tallied 27 victories with the 5, including his first Daytona 500 in 1986 with Geoffrey Bodine and the Levi Garrett Chevrolet. He won the 1996 championship with Terry Labonte in the No. 5 Kellogg's entry, and also scored the very last Labor Day Southern 500 with Labonte at Darlington in 2003. During his brief tenure in the 5, Kyle Busch became the youngest Cup Series winner in NASCAR history.
No. 5 also was Ricky Hendrick's racing number in the Busch Series. Ricky raced the No. 24 at times, too, and was No. 17 in the Truck Series. But I remember him in the 5. He had this hat I always loved, nothing but a large blue numeral "5" on its face.
More than anything else, No. 5 is Rick Hendrick's first. You never forget your first.
I'd bet the No. 5 is on the racetrack in 2008 with Casey Mears behind the wheel, still sponsored by Kellogg's and Carquest.
That leaves the 25, which has long been considered the black sheep of the Hendrick stable despite having won 17 races since 1986. Some say it's cursed. One of the undisputed greatest driving talents in NASCAR history, Tim Richmond, drove the No. 25 to Victory Lane nine times for HMS between June 8, 1986, and June 21, 1987.
He won seven races in 29 starts in '86, and two in eight starts in 1987, for a total of nine wins in 36 starts over two seasons. The number sat idle for the first 11 races of 1987 while Richmond was being treated for AIDS. He came back for race No. 12 and promptly won. He then won the 13th race, too, and drove through the 19th race of the season before he retired.
Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt fans may not like this statement, but Richmond may have been the greatest driving talent in NASCAR history.
Hendrick himself drove the No. 25 at Riverside, Calif., in 1987, his first of two career Cup starts. He started 21st and finished 33rd, the victim of a transmission failure. (Betcha he missed a shift!)
In all, six different drivers have earned victories under the Hendrick banner in the No. 25, the latest coming in May, when Mears won the Coca-Cola 600.
But like the 5, the 25 is much more to Rick Hendrick than on-track success. No. 25 was Papa Joe Hendrick's car. And after he passed, it became Ricky's car.
This decision may already be made. It's nearly September, after all, and licensing plans for '08 are well under way, if not close to complete.
Ultimately, I figure Junior will have a new number, something in the 80s. A clean start for all involved, from every angle.
But what if he simply inherited the No. 5? Just a hypothetical.
Earnhardt is real big on NASCAR history and family pride. The No. 5 offers him both sort of.
On Sept. 17, 1961, Junior's grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt, ran the No. 5 Pontiac in the Dixie 400 Grand National race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He finished 35th out of 42 cars after a transmission failure.
It was just one race, sure. But it'd be cool. And of course, Ralph is most famous for the very same number Junior covets: 8.
I'll close by throwing my father-in-law a bone: Yes, indeed, Mr. C., 8 minus 3 does equal 5.
I smell a bumper sticker.
Note: Many readers know of my devotion to Virginia Tech athletics, and have e-mailed requesting my take on the Michael Vick situation. I have a staunch opinion on the whole thing, but it's not my place to discuss it in a public forum. I'll be in Blacksburg Saturday for the Hokies' season opener. If you see me there, say hey and we'll chat about it. But I'll politely decline writing anything. That's someone else's job. Thanks.
You never answer my questions about Clint Bowyer so I'm gonna keep sending them 'til you reply! I'm still wondering why he can't ever contend for wins while still running well. The only race where he contended for a win was at the second Daytona race, where running up front at the end doesn't mean jack (no pun intended) in order to pull off a win.
At least he didn't finish on his roof, so that's an improvement. This brings me to another question: Why does there seem to be one team and only one team in every major Cup organization that sucks in comparison to their teammates?
J.J. Yeley at Gibbs, David Ragan at Roush, Casey Mears at Hendrick -- who by sheer luck pulled off the win at Lowe's -- Paul Menard at DEI and then Clint Bowyer at Childress, who doesn't really suck, but can't seem to contend. Even A.J. Allmendinger at Red Bull can't compare to Brian Vickers.
So what's the deal? Is it the driver or the team? I don't believe there's a bum team at every organization (the No. 18 won a championship), but it all seems like too much coincidence. I know you don't have all the answers, but could you at least provide me with a few. P.S. I think Juan Pablo Montoya is an a------!
-- David, hometown unknown
First of all, David, it is unfair at best, and closer to ridiculous, to compare Bowyer to Yeley or Menard. They are clearly at a different level than their respective teammates. Bowyer, on the other hand, is ninth in points and has tallied more top-10s than either of his teammates, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick. (And more than Martin Truex, Kurt Busch or Dale Jr., for that matter.)
You're a tough crowd, brother. I guess winning does matter in NASCAR, after all.
Now, on to why this happens. It sounds like a cop-out, I know, but anytime this discussion arises in conversation drivers invariably cite communication as the predominant reason for mediocrity in the face of excellence.
The equipment variable is critical, of course. Jeff Gordon couldn't win in the 4 car. If you don't have the horse, you ain't reaching ol' Mexico before Pat Garrett catches you. Just how it is. But given equal equipment, the answer is communication.
I consider Jamie McMurray the perfect case study in the importance of NASCAR communication. In 2006 he struggled mightily and was arguably the biggest disappointment of the season. Enter Larry Carter, McMurray's third crew chief at Roush. Suddenly the No. 26 Ford is up front, a weekly contender and McMurray is realizing the lofty expectations the entire industry has for him.
Same with Kurt Busch at Penske. He's driving the same equipment he's driven all year, but it's a different race team since Pat Tryson showed up on the pit box. Tryson's ability to listen to Busch's feedback and execute the requisite adjustments to the car have produced a championship-caliber outfit.
I know everyone is trying to figure out what Jr.'s new number will be, but I wanted to ask your opinion on this. What about running either 38 or 83? This way he keeps his 8 for his grandfather but he also has a 3 for his dad. I think the fans would lose their minds seeing him roll out of the garage with that bad boy.
-- K. O'Brien, New York
It's unlikely to happen. Earnhardt has told me time and again that he's not interested in having a 3 on his door until he's a Cup Series champion. And if and when that happens it will be the No. 3, not 30-something or something-3. Now 88 is a different story, entirely. I think that could be a real possibility. I still think it's 81, though.
I'm a huge NASCAR memorabilia collector, especially diecast cars. My buddy said he heard Action is coming back. Is this true? I hope so because they made the best stuff ever.
-- Brian McMahon, Virginia
Yes, Action is back, Brian. Mark Dyer, Motorsports Authentics' new president, understands full well the importance of fan affinity. Like you, Brian, many fans respect and trust the Action brand. They know Action is a quality piece, and are apt to purchase it. It was one of Dyer's first initiatives in the MA revival. (The company faces an estimated $20 million loss in 2007, and Dyer is the man appointed to fix it moving forward.)
Dyer also brought back Action founder Fred Wagenhals to oversee the project. Drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace owe a nice chunk of their wealth to Wagenhals. His foresight in the industry's merchandising niche was revolutionary. He understood the fans' desire for their favorite driver's product.
Among the current industry executives groomed under Wagenhals' tutelage are JR Motorsports president Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, JRM licensing director Joe Mattes, Victory Management president David Hyne, and John Bickford, president of Jeff Gordon, Inc.
Does the point leader get anything for being on top for 26 races? If not, whoever it is should get something.
-- Ed, Crestwood, Ill.
No, he doesn't, Ed, and, yes, he absolutely should. At the very least, said driver and team should receive a monetary bonus. But it should really be a points bonus. NASCAR should offer an incentive for winning the regular season. And it doesn't have to be huge, but should be acknowledged.
In football, teams are awarded valuable home-field advantage and a first-round bye. In basketball they're seeded against the worst of the best, generally increasing the chance to advance toward a championship. Racing is different, but the same fundamental premise applies: It's difficult to produce sustained excellence for seven months, so reward it.
I was at Bristol last weekend, and while there was no demolition derby, I still had a great time. There is nothing like racing under the lights! During the Busch race, I listened in on Kyle Busch's radio and, as always, he kept me thoroughly entertained.
But he did cause me to wonder -- are the drivers' mikes always open, or do they need to hit a button to initiate conversation? After Kyle's commitment line fiasco, the language just flew, and while I was laughing, I wondered if his every thought is heard because his mike is always open or did he choose to share his feelings with us? Thanks, Marty, and love your column.
-- Mitzie in Oshawa, Ontario
The latter, Mitzie. Drivers open their radios to their crews by pressing a button that's located on the steering wheel.
Busch chose to share his feelings with the world -- and, in turn, with NASCAR. I would, too. NASCAR's error cost him a victory. He drove from 28th to fourth after that, so that offers a stark indication of how good his car was.
That's it for this week, team. Please keep the awesome questions coming, and have a wonderful weekend.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.