Commentary

The 8 should have stayed with Junior

Updated: April 15, 2009, 3:56 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

From the time I was in grade school I chose jersey No. 9 for all possible athletic exploits. Every kid in the South fought like hell over No. 3 (Dale Murphy), and we were no different. Once my buddy Bones (still my best friend) secured it, I chose Mama's birthday, Dec. 9.

There were 85s and 34s and 7s sprinkled in there sporadically when an older kid wanted the 9-er, but nothing else ever felt quite right. I had a vanity plate in college pronouncing my beloved digit, and in the mid-90s fast-food joints all over the New River Valley were devoid of window statics proclaiming 99-cent tacos or the $3.99 value meal.

To this day, my personal e-mail address centers on the numeral 9. My wife and I went to the Vatican last year and I stopped on the ninth floor just to pose by the marble block inscribed "IX."

Marty Smith
Courtesy Marty Smith Can you guess Marty Smith's favorite number? The ninth floor of the Vatican revealed all.

I bore you with all this mess to illustrate how important jersey numbers are to most dudes. It sounds completely ridiculous, but it's part of an athlete's identity.

Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis bought No. 26 from a journeyman defensive back for 40 grand; he even got sued when he didn't pay up on time. When Tom Glavine was traded from the Atlanta Braves to the New York Mets, he financed a nursery in teammate Joe McEwing's home in exchange for jersey No. 47. Brian Jordan bought a $40,000 motorcycle for a Braves third-base coach to score the No. 33.

You get the idea.

Too bad Teresa Earnhardt was too stubborn to be bought.

That AMP car would look sick with a big ol' red 8 slapped on the side. Dale Earnhardt Jr. designs a gorgeous race car, and has settled well into the 88. But for me he'll always be No. 8.

It fit him perfectly. His grandfather's number, it was part of the family lineage. His ol' man drove it some, too. And from the very second the Budweiser Chevy was unveiled at Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 1998, it became Junior's identity.

It was one of the three most famous race cars in NASCAR history: the Petty blue 43, the black Earnhardt 3 and Junior's red 8.

It's more famous than Pearson's 21 or Darrell's 11 or Rusty's 2. Just is. You can't convince me otherwise.

The (Junior) Nation proves it. From Spokane to Sebring, there are slanted 8s tattooed on arms and legs and posterior regions and heaven knows where else. Budweiser made a commercial once joking about the phenomenon, how people would completely freak out if he were to change his number. As if that would ever happen.

You just don't see that with 24s or 48s or 18s or anything else. Occasionally, sure, but not to that degree.

And you don't see it in other sports. Because for fans, in other sports it's not about numbers. It's about team logos.

NASCAR is numbers. In NASCAR it's not the DuPont car. It's the 24. It's not the Office Depot car. It's the 14. In stick-and-ball sports there might be 30 No. 12s across the league. In NASCAR there's one.

That makes the relationship between driver and number even more identifiable.

And that makes the fact that the 8 is now dormant even sadder.

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing reportedly will suspend operations of the No. 8 due to lack of sponsorship; further proof, as if any were needed, that the number should have gone with Junior to Hendrick Motorsports.

But Teresa Earnhardt was having none of it. Her stipulations for forking it over? A portion of the licensing revenue and guaranteed return of the number when Junior was done driving, among other things.

Ultimately, the divide was too great.

It was a shame then. It's an even bigger shame now.

Even if Junior wanted the number now, he still couldn't get it. EGR told me it's not for sale.

When Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs, folks wondered if he'd take the 20. It was all he'd ever driven in NASCAR, and was part of his competitive identity. But as it turned out it wasn't much of a story, not nearly as dramatic or passionate as whether Earnhardt would keep the 8.

That's because Stewart got to go drive a childhood hero's number.

Earnhardt already was.

Now, The Six …

Marty!

We Jeff Gordon fans are so proud of him! Not only does he break the losing streak but did it at Texas! I admit there were times last year I thought he might be finished, but he's a new man this year. What's changed to make him so much more competitive this season?

-- Marjorie Tate, Camden, N.J.

Work/life balance, Marjorie. In 2008 Gordon was learning to adjust to fatherhood. He brought his family to the racetrack for entire race weekends, and tried to give full focus to the race car during the day and full focus to his family at night. Admirable, certainly. But it just didn't work.

You love your spouse and kids, but few of you bring them to the office.

Like all children, there were times when his daughter wouldn't sleep, so neither did Mama or Daddy. NASCAR drivers must be fully invested in that race car from Friday morning until Sunday evening if they're to have any chance to succeed, and lack of sleep doesn't fit in the equation. So this year the Gordons altered the plan a bit. The family typically arrives on Sundays, if at all.

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
Do you have a question for ESPN NASCAR analyst Marty Smith? Go to Smith's SportsNation page to submit your question or comment for Marty, and check back regularly for the column in which he will provide the answers.
Ask Marty

Gordon is also more fit and -- sounds corny -- but healthier in mind and spirit. That transfers to the race car or the boardroom or the work site, whether you want to believe it or not.

Then there's his experience. With the no-testing rule, teams with experienced drivers have a substantial advantage. Gordon has now won on every track but one. He knows every bump, fissure and weekend-evolution tendency on every one of them.

Back at Atlanta I asked his crew chief, Steve Letarte, what type of advantage that was.

"Oh. Huge."

Then there were the whispers. Is this guy done? Gordon heard them; even wondered it himself a couple times. He knew it wasn't true, and set out to prove it. He's uncertain how much longer he'll be racing, so the time is now.

"Nobody does it eat up more than this guy and myself and this team," Gordon said of not winning. "And we just never, I think, lost sight of that and gave up. Honestly, I think it inspired us to go through that. It made us angry, not because things are being written about it, because we know we're better than that. And we know we're capable of it."

Marty,

Kurt Busch's explosion on the radio with Roger Penske was unbelievable. I read where he said communication with the team should be made private. That's crazy. It's one of the coolest things about NASCAR.

-- Ashley Songer, Bethlehem, Pa.

Agreed, Ashley, 100 percent. Ill words are spoken in the heat of competition every weekend that drivers and teams would just as soon not be made public. But that unfiltered emotion, raw and in real time, sets NASCAR apart from everyone else.

Granted, if you put yourself in Busch's position for a moment you can understand his thought. If half the mess that's screamed during flag football games and pickup hoops were public, we'd all be embarrassed.

But this is the big-time. Busch knows the deal. It's not his first rodeo.

Song of the week: "Shuttin' Detroit Down." John Rich is not scared to call The Man out. The video is so real it makes you sick. Kris Kristofferson is a living legend, the perfect person to portray the auto workers' plight. Masterful.

Marty,

When the Cup boys raced at Martinsville, I had a random question pop inside my head and was hoping you could answer it for me. With all the new brake technology, brakes still seem to be a problem at the paper clip and the road courses. I know that carbon-ceramic brakes are the wave of the future for super cars, so I was wondering if NASCAR allows teams to use those, and if so, do any teams actually use them?

-- Justin Weimer, Columbus, Ohio

Ceramic brakes are not allowed in NASCAR competition in an effort to control cost, Justin. My pit crew buddies tell me the current brake packages are plenty suitable with proper cooling, and provided the driver doesn't overuse them at tracks like Martinsville. Teams get in trouble when they overdrive the brakes or don't properly maintain them.

Marty,

So, what's so great about living 6 miles from "WEST BY GOD VIRGINIA?" Hahahaha!

-- F. Haddox, hometown unknown

Uh. That it's in Virginia.

Marty,

When Jeff Gordon was on "NASCAR Victory Lane," the billboards behind him in Victory Lane, the one that had the Samsung 500 logo, has Carl Edwards signature. Did he come by messing with Jeff after the race? Just wondering why it was there. Love your column. RIP, Prissy -- the family dog passed away a few minutes after the race, she loved to watch every Sunday.

-- Garrett Spivey, hometown unknown

First of all, sorry to hear about Prissy, Garrett. As for the billboards, you have an eagle eye, man. I TiVo "Victory Lane" and went back and watched closely, and you're exactly right: Right there in silver Sharpie is Carl Edwards' autograph, complete with the 99.

I called Texas Motor Speedway and am told that all race winners at TMS sign that board, and Edwards' signature is from his victory in 2008. Mike Zizzo, TMS communications director, told me the track has drivers sign those boards, and they'll remain in place unless a sponsor or driver wants them, or they're auctioned for charity.

Seriously, Garrett. Are you a fighter pilot?

Hi Marty,

Pondering a bit. We have the Truck Series. We have the Cup Series. We have the Nationwide Series. Say what?

Now I know about 20 years ago they switched the Grand National badging from the Winston Series to the Busch Series, and renamed the top tier to Winston Cup, then Nextel Cup and now Sprint Cup. All during the modern NASCAR era.

The Truck Series was originally the Craftsman Truck Series and now is called the Camping World Truck Series. But the Nationwide Series has an identity crisis. A quick glance, and you don't know what the series is about.

They were called the Busch Series, but that still does not tell you a whole lot. The Grand National badging is never used and is a mouthful. You hear references to the Truck Series, the Cup Series and the Nationwide Series. But it just seems odd that the Nationwide Series does not have its own identity like Truck and Cup.

Why is that Marty?

-- Dennis West, Roanoke, Va.

The Nationwide Series certainly has an identity crisis, and not just in name alone, Dennis. It has no idea what it is.

Nationwide Insurance truly sought to come in and market its young stars, focus on Nationwide-only drivers of the future. And to its credit, it has tried: Brad Keselowski has a commercial, for example, and a program was developed called "Dash 4 Cash" that benefits full-time series drivers with some extra loot if they win one of four stand-alone events or accumulate the most points during those events.

But it's dang near impossible to market series-specific drivers when Cup stars win every single weekend.

It's an awful catch-22. Without Cup drivers, Nationwide team owners struggle to secure sponsorship. And Cup drivers love the fun and money that accompany Nationwide competition, so they're going to race until NASCAR says they can't.

But why would NASCAR do that? Cup stars put rear ends in the seats.

That's my time this week. Time now to head to the mall for the obligatory Easter Bunny photo. He's a scary-lookin' somebody, all mustard-colored and floppy. Hopefully we won't have a meltdown this time around. Happy Easter, everyone.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

ALSO SEE