When a NASCAR race gets underway, the bright lights or dazzling sunshine can easily make the colors and race livery of each car difficult to distinguish. Thankfully, race numbers laid on the doors and roof of each car have given fans, teams, and commentators alike a way of easily identifying drivers in the pack, like black sheep among their white accomplices.
Unlike other motorsports where a driver’s race number can be carried with them from formula to formula, even to the extent of being used as a signature to market their personal brand, in NASCAR, it is the cars that carry the numbers and the teams that must apply to NASCAR for the numbers they desire.
Nowadays, drivers hop into a car to drive for a team and race with the number they’re given – but that’s not always been the case…
The superstitious among us have the tendency to believe some race numbers, in particular, are luckier than others, and probability would have it that some numbers have seen the chequered flag more times than most.
After all, in much of the world, the number 13 is considered unlucky, or the number 17 if you’re in Italy, so it’s only natural the superstitious ties some of us have with certain digits would exist in a sport like NASCAR that requires plenty of good fortune.
What are the numbers used for?
In NASCAR, race numbers are used to identify the drivers competing in a race, and used in the classification of the timing and other data by race officials. The large, striking numbers make it easier for fans watching in the stands, or at home on TV, to pick out their prized driver in the scuffle that often happens at over 200mph.
- “the 63 is closing the gap on the number 14… and now it’s the number 22, the 88 and the 76 that are now bumper to bumper, coming to join the battle!”
Above is a prime example of the way in which driver’s race numbers are typically utilized by commentators as a form of short speak, enabling them to deliver a fast, fluid dialogue during times when the action has everyone jumping out of their seats and losing their voices.
How do NASCAR drivers get their numbers?
With regards to who actually owns the race numbers available, it’s NASCAR who distributes the licenses each year from numbers 00-99, meaning you can have car #0 alongside #00, with 110 numbers available in total. The teams or sponsors must apply to acquire the license for the number they desire pre-season. The drivers themselves never actually own the race number and often don’t get a say in which number they can use.
If a driver quits driving for a team, or alternatively is fired, the race number remains with the car and the team. Meanwhile, the driver becomes essentially “numberless” until they sign for a new team and step into a new car. Things in NASCAR often get very heated, and it’s not unheard of for a driver to quit with a team and start racing in a different car with a new number multiple times in a season.
Single digits, double digits, triple digits
We’ve seen all kinds of number layouts and configurations in NASCAR, from single digits to triple digits, numbers slanting forwards, numbers slanting backward, and stylized fonts; the early days even saw lower-case suffixes added to triple-digit numbers e.g. 300b. Until only recently, triple-digits could be used on cars, but due to concerns with the ease of reading these numbers, the official number range is from 00-99.
The most iconic race numbers in NASCAR
For those of us that have childhood memories of NASCAR playing on the television, the bright, garish numbers seemingly painted on the sides of the cars were no doubt more recognizable to us than the image of the drivers themselves. Who doesn’t remember the white 43 on a pale blue car driven by Richard Petty? Or the white #3 contrasting against the black background of Earnhardt’s signature livery? A truly iconic image of NASCAR.
The Most Famous Car Numbers in NASCAR:
- #43 – Richard Petty
- #3 – Dale Earnhardt
- #24 – Jeff Gordon
- #11 – Cale Yarborough, Ned Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip
- #18 – Bobby Labonte, Kyle Busch
- #48 – Jimmie Johnson
- #88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Drivers winning with different numbers
While some drivers like Richard Petty in the #43 have won the majority of their titles with one car number, in particular, others like Cale Yarborough have experienced success with many different numbers. Perhaps the driver best known for winning with different numbers is Bobby Allison, who won a staggering 85 races with 11 different numbers.
The drivers we often think of as the fastest, and most dominant in NASCAR have often done so amassing victories spanning the course of decades, yet it is the numbers that have the longest careers. As drivers claim victories under different teams, the car numbers themselves also accumulate wins, so which car number is the winningest?
Top 5 winning car numbers in NASCAR:
- #24 – 93 wins (Jeff Gordon)
- #2 – 95 wins (Rusty Wallace, Bret Keselowski, Kurt Busch)
- #3 – 99 wins (Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson)
- #43 – 199 wins (Richard Petty)
- #11 – 218 wins (Cale Yarborough, Ned Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip, Junior Johnson)
Why are some numbers retired?
No matter how famous a particular driver-number combination becomes, drivers in NASCAR are unable to own race numbers or retain them when they switch cars to a different team. The driver’s inability to own a race number prevents certain numbers from being retired with them when they quit racing professionally.
There is one exception to this rule; in this case, it’s the tragic story of Richie Evans. Evans, who raced to 8 NASCAR National Modified Championships in a row, and a staggering 9 in total with the #51, tragically died during a practice session at Martinsville Speedway in 1985. After the incident, it was decided his number would be permanently removed from the roster of available numbers.
How have NASCAR numbers changed for 2022?
For the 2022 season, marking the inaugural season with the new NextGen cars, fans might have already noticed something that seems out of place on the cars compared with last year. Take a closer look at the side of the car and you’ll notice the location of the car number has changed from the door, further forward to accompany the hindside of the front wheel arch.
We will have our thoughts on the change; some like it, and others prefer the way it was before. It could be argued that there are so many ground-breaking changes for us all to get used to this year; a change as minor as the placement of numbers on the car is unlikely to make a change to the racing; it simply offers a larger space for sponsors to advertise.
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