- Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR
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To the citizens of Red Nation:
My dear brothers and sisters, do not fret over the fact that your beloved slanted 8 will not be joining your beloved Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports next season.
Yes, it stings. Yes, we all thought the Budweiser ad about having to alter your tattoos and yard ornaments was merely a joke. But, yes, we shall survive this. As will Junior, Teresa, Hendrick and, yes, even the digit located between 7 and 9.
Truth is, the No. 8 was in the NASCAR business long before Driver No. 8. In fact, and this might hurt a bit, Earnhardt isn't even the most successful driver to have the numeral slapped on the side of his car. Not even close.
In all, 82 men have run the 8, beginning with Billy Carden. The man from Mableton, Ga., started third and finished 15th in NASCAR's second-ever Strictly Stock (now Nextel Cup) race, run on the grueling 4.15-mile beach and road course in Daytona. They ran only eight races that season, and the No. 8 was used in four races by three different drivers, common practice in those early "hired gun" days.
Including Carden's inaugural start, the 8 has run a total of 1,264 Cup races, steered by two Jacks, three Joes, six Dicks, and guys named Possum, Pop, Tiny, Skip, Banjo, Elmo, Bud, L.D., J.D., E.J. and D.K. Earnhardt is the third Junior to drive the car and isn't even the first Dale Earnhardt. Senior made one start at Charlotte in '75.
For his 15th-place finish, Carden received a tidy $50, the first bucks of a pile that has topped $41 million. Dale Jr. may be responsible for nearly all of that coinage, but he's not the racer responsible for the majority of the 8's visits to Victory Lane.
That distinction belongs to Little Joe Weatherly, considered by some to be the most talented driver ever to own a NASCAR license and by most to be among the greatest partyers in American history.
Weatherly slipped into the No. 8 in 1961, having already won four races with other teams and numbers as he bounced from team to team. But it was in car owner Bud Moore's Pontiac that Weatherly became a legend. From 1961 to '63, he started 109 races in the 8, earning 20 wins, 16 poles, and back-to-back championships in '62 and '63. For those of you scoring at home, that means Little Joe tops Little E in wins, poles, championships -- even beer consumption.
Unfortunately, Weatherly died behind the wheel of No. 8 at the Riverside, Calif., road course only five races into the '64 season and the numeral went into a nosedive. For the next 35 years, the number won only one race despite having some all-time all-stars behind the wheel.
David Pearson started one race in 1967, leading nine laps but settling for seventh. Two years later, Wendell Scott, the only full-time African-American Cup driver, also started one event, finishing 17th at Charlotte. Others making one-race cameos -- Ron Keselowski (whose nephew Brad drives the No. 88 Busch Series car owned by Dale Jr.); Dale Sr.; and the man who eventually would become Big E's Cup-winning crew chief, Kirk Shelmerdine, who bailed early in a race in College Station, Texas, in '81.
Rick Wilson, Dick Trickle, Mike Alexander, Sterling Marlin, Jeff Burton, Hut Stricklin, Buckshot Jones and Morgan Shepherd all took turns in the No. 8 owned by Stavola Brothers in the 1980s and '90s, with a combined record of 0-for-336.
However, between Weatherly's last win on Oct. 27, 1963, and Dale Jr.'s first on April 2, 2000, one other man was able to celebrate a victory as Driver No. 8. Gentlemen, start your easy-money bar bets ...
Bobby Hillin Jr.
On July 27, 1986, at Talladega Superspeedway, Hillin was the original, check that, only young gun in the Winston Cup Series. On a wild day that saw 26 different leaders and an epic multicar crash on the final lap, the pride of Midland, Texas, became the third-youngest driver to win a Cup race.
"That last lap, I don't think I ever looked out my windshield," recalls Hillin, now owner of T-Rex Services, specializing in hydro and air vacuum excavation. "I kept my right foot down and my eyes on the rearview mirror. Here I was, 22 years old, with Tim Richmond and Ricky Rudd chasing me to the finish line. It was a great day, but I would have never guessed that it would be the only win of my career. Then again, I guess I have one more than most."
Of the 82 men who have driven the No. 8, his win is one more win than 79 of them.
Now we know that '08 will bring us the 83rd driver of the 8. We might not know who it will be, but we do know this -- he can drive it but not own it, no matter how many races he wins or how popular he becomes. He'll simply borrow it for a while, until Father Time or "Evil Stepmother" forces him to hand it off to driver No. 84.
And yes, Red Nation, we'll survive.
Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't the first to drive the No. 8, and he won't be the last. Yes, it stings for Junior fans, but Red Nation will prevail, writes Ryan McGee.