In the days since Jeff Gordon announced that 2015 would be his last year of full-time competition at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series level and another announcement followed, officially naming Chase Elliott as the heir apparent to the vacated No. 24 seat, there’s been a lot of talk about NASCAR’s policy of not retiring numbers. Actually, the talk of number retirement came before the Elliott announcement. It came later the day of Gordon’s announcement. It was a discussion that was reignited from desires to retire the No. 3 after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001.
Many of those who are all for retiring numbers in NASCAR bring up the practice in stick-and-ball sports. Sure, practices and procedures in stick-and-ball sports are used, and I believe justifiably so, to defend things such as the elimination-format Chase for the Sprint Cup, among other things, but I’m not so sure it can be applied here.
I’m not big on the idea of retiring numbers in NASCAR, because even though it may be feasable in some ways, in others, it would open up a huge can of worms, if not now, down the road.
I’ll admit, retiring numbers in any sport hasn’t really been a big thing for me. Maybe that comes from being a University of Kentucky basketball fan. You see, in the UK basketball program, while jerseys are retired, numbers are not. It’s a long, unrelated practice I won’t get into here.
In NASCAR, there are a few numbers associated with a given driver — the No. 3 with Earnhardt, the No. 43 with Richard Petty and the No. 4 with Gordon, just to name three.
That being said, here are the issues I have with the whole retiring numbers in NASCAR thing:
Numbers aren’t only tied to drivers, they’re tied to teams. When drivers retire, often the team continues on. That number was the team’s number, too. Shouldn’t teams get to continue on with their familiar numbers if they want?
If teams decide to shelve a number for a time, so be it. That’s a team’s choice to do so. Case in point — Richard Childress Racing’s decision to change the No. 3 to the No. 29 after Earnhardt’s death, shelving it for several years before putting it back on the track in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014.
Why shouldn’t the No. 3 have been retired? It wasn’t just Earnhardt’s number. Car owner Richard Childress raced with the number for years, many years driving the car himself before Earnhardt came onto the scene. When you look at it that way, isn’t it Childress’ number? Why shouldn’t he have the right to field his number, as long as he wants?
How about the No. 43? It is still with Richard Petty Motorsports, but Petty, himself, isn’t driving the car. Should his number be retired because he’s not behind the wheel of the car carrying the number, even if it is his car?
Sure, Gordon is the only driver to win from behind the wheel of a No. 24 car at the Cup level. Sure, he’s driven the No. 24 his entire Cup career. Sure, Hendrick Motorsports wasn’t fielding the No. 24 prior to Gordon’s arrival at Hendrick Motorsports. But Gordon’s success behind the wheel of the No. 24 was also Hendrick’s success, wasn’t it? That team is continuing on, why should it be forced to change its number?
Hendrick could’ve shelved the No. 24 like Childress did the No. 3, and apparently, he thought about it. He did ask Gordon how he felt about it, and Gordon, reportedly, told him to go ahead and continue to race with the number.
Gordon’s association with the No. 24 in terms of racing it his entire Sprint Cup career brings up another reason I’m against the whole number retirement thing. What about drivers with Hall of Fame-type careers that raced under different numbers? It just doesn’t seem fair to me that those drivers would be denied that type of honor just because some other great drivers raced at least most of their careers with a single number but they didn’t. Yeah, I know, life’s not fair, but I digress.
Getting back to the stick-and-ball comparison, those teams aren’t associated with a single number, only the individual player is, so a team can emerge with tradition intact, even with a number or two retired here and there. NASCAR’s also a team sport, but NASCAR teams are associated with one specific number. A driver’s success, if with a single team, is also that team’s success. Why penalize traditionally and consistently successful teams by taking away their numbers? That’s what NASCAR number retirement would do, when you think about it.
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