NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Dale Junior and Casey Mears Not Just Numbers

OK, I get a lot of things. I get how stupid the Chase is, and it’s at least as bad as the Top-35 rule. I even sort of get the rulebook. Well, I can read and understand what some of it is talking about, so that should put me on par with some of the teams. How it’s applied is a different story. I don’t think even NASCAR gets that one. But there is one thing I just don’t understand in the garage these days (not counting the groupies, but they’re another story). What is the big deal over Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s number?

I understand why the number is a big deal to Junior. It’s not about marketing; it’s not about money, it’s about his family legacy and the fact that his Daddy chose that number for him in honor of his own father, who Junior never had the chance to meet. To Teresa Earnhardt it’s about marketing and the money to be garnered from the trademark. But I don’t understand why the fans are so up in arms about it. I understand the tattoo thing, but, well, race fans should know better… forever is a long time in this business. But in the long run, it’s just a number. Junior is still Junior, still the same driver, no matter what is on the side of his car. It’s shameful that he had to ask his fans to stop their hateful comments about his stepmother, most of them over the number. That was a private battle, not ours to wage.

Ditto Casey Mears. I know it must be hard for his fans with Mears on his third number in three years. That’s a lot of hats and diecasts. But the allegations that Earnhardt Jr. just waltzed in and demanded the number are laughable. Just guessing here, but it’s probably more along the lines of the No. 5’s history at Hendrick Motorsports and the wishes of the sponsor. The No. 5 was Little Ricky’s team. Not to mention, Mears’s move to the No. 5 team after this year includes the whole shebang; cars, top crew chief (while retaining Darian Grubb as an engineering consultant, always Grubb’s real forte), and family-friendly sponsor Kellogg’s. The move essentially and rightfully moves Mears up a notch in the Hendrick hierarchy to a team that has won consistently for more than a decade. I don’t see how that’s not something to be very happy about.

Not that there aren’t numbers that are associated with certain drivers, no matter who else drove them. I don’t think anybody who loved racing during the Dale Earnhardt era wouldn’t feel strange should another driver take to the track in the legendary No. 3. Some really good drivers have driven the No. 28, but in many minds, that car was Davey Allison‘s. The No. 43 was (and still is) the King’s ride, and it just looks funny with the yellow against Carolina blue. Jeff Gordon will probably buck recent trends and drive his entire career in the rainbow No. 24, possibly the most reviled number in recent history.

Maybe it comes of being a longtime fan of a driver who has had more numbers in his career than I can count on both hands, but to me it’s never been a big deal. A nuisance to be sure, but nothing to get upset about. A fact of racing, nothing more. It was never a personal vendetta. It certainly wasn’t worth hours of effort of online petitions and overt animosity toward a car owner. I know the number on the hat or t-shirt identifies one fan of that driver to another, but, as true fans of any journeyman driver will tell you, the real fans will recognize even the oldest paraphernalia from their favorite. It’s not a personal insult to fans when a driver changes teams and gets a new number. It is, in the words of Robby Gordon, what it is.

The bottom line is, the number doesn’t make the man. It makes some fine memories and some amazing stories, but not the driver. The driver may define the number, but the number doesn’t define the driver. And it shouldn’t define the fans, either.

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