Every major professional sport retires the numbers of its greatest players—except NASCAR.
For a player to have his number retired after a standout career, it's an homage to the greatness and accomplishments that an athlete achieved while wearing that number in his career. It's also, usually, the cherry on top when a player is voted into the Hall of Fame of his respective sport.
Major League Baseball's New York Yankees retired Babe Ruth's illustrious No. 3 more than 65 years ago. No one who ever plays for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers will wear Joe Montana's No. 16. NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky has the rare distinction of having his No. 99 retired by two teams, the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings. The NBA's Chicago Bulls will never have another player wear Michael Jordan's No. 23.
Just last week, the NFL's Chicago Bears retired Mike Ditka's No. 89. It only took the team 47 years to do so, and several players have worn that number since, but the point is that Chicago eventually did it.
But not NASCAR. There has never been even one car number retired in the sport's history. Not Richard Petty's legendary No. 43 not Dale Earnhardt's No. 3.
Earnhardt's number came the closest to being retired, as it has not been used in the Sprint Cup Series since Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500. But the 3 car will come back next season when team owner Richard Childress bestows that legendary digit to grandson, Austin Dillon, as he jumps to full-time competition in the Sprint Cup Series.
Why hasn't NASCAR ever retired a car number? Much of the reason is that the greatest drivers who drove cars with the greatest numbers wanted the legacy of the car number to continue even after their own racing days are over. That's why the 43 has been driven by several drivers since Petty retired at the end of the 1992 season.
Likewise with Earnhardt, who, according to NASCAR lore, reportedly told Childress that he'd like to see his No. 3 continue on even after his racing career was over.
One argument NASCAR makes—and which is understandable—is that there are only a finite amount of numbers to be used in the Cup Series.
That's true to an extent.
By my count, that number is 110, which includes every number from 0 to 99, as well as 00 through 09.
And according to Jayski.com, 103 different numbers have won Cup races, but another 24 have never visited Victory Lane in a points-paying race (02, 03, 04, 05, 08, 35, 36, 50, 57, 61, 63, 65, 67, 68, 69, 70, 74, 76, 79, 82, 84, 93, 94 and 95).
How is it possible to have 103 different numbers win and still have 24 that haven't won if there are only 110 total one- or two-digit numbers?
That's easy. One thing many NASCAR fans—particularly of the modern-day ilk—may not realize is that NASCAR used to have a number of drivers who had three digits on their cars (mostly in the 1950s), the most notable being NASCAR Hall of Fame members Buck Baker and Tim Flock, along with Speedy Thompson.
In fact, there were 17 race winners that wore triple digits or two digits and a letter (like 14W or 22N) on their race cars, primarily in the 1950s.
There is no reason why a Cup team can't run a three-digit number on its car today, although doing so would be rare. It's a lot easier to say "the 88" than the "the 769."
Theoretically, if you included three-digit numbers, there are 1,010 potential combinations still available in NASCAR. And why? Because zero—the amount, not the specific number—have ever been retired.
But at the same time, while a certain uniform number of a player may be retired by a particular team in the sport, that doesn't mean all teams retire that same number.
In fact, there's only two numbers across all other pro sports leagues in the U.S. that are universally retired by the sanctioning body itself and not an individual team: Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson's No. 42 in 1997, while the NHL retired Gretzky's No. 99 in 2000.
Of note about Robinson's number, players who were still wearing that number in 1997 were grandfathered in and allowed to continue wearing that number until they either retired or switched teams. The New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who retired after the 2013 season, is the last player who will ever wear the No. 42 going forward.
Getting back to NASCAR, did you know that Petty only won 192 of his record-setting 200 Cup wins in the 43? The other eight triumphs were spread between the 41 and 42.
So why can't there be retired numbers in NASCAR? Or, better yet, is there a fair and equitable system that would make retiring a car number a rarity reserved for only the best and greatest legends of all.
Yes, I think there should be retired car numbers in NASCAR, and I have come up with a system that I believe could achieve that in a fair way. Admittedly, it's weighted toward what Petty and Earnhardt did in their careers, but it's a start toward considering other qualifying standards, as well.
I believe a number should be retired if a single driver earns at least 50 wins and a minimum of four championships in a car with the same number before the driver retires from the sport.
Up to now, Petty and Earnhardt were the only drivers to achieve such a lofty standard that they deserved to have their numbers retired. That said, under my proposed system, two current drivers would be eligible to have their numbers retired once their careers are over: Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 (six championships, 66 wins) and Jeff Gordon's No. 24 (four championships, 88 wins).
That's my take. What's yours? Do you agree, or should no numbers in NASCAR ever be retired? Let's hear your thoughts in the comments.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.
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