How Are NASCAR Driver Numbers Chosen?
Some NASCAR numbers are iconic and are intertwined with certain drivers and teams, and the importance of the number(s) teams use goes far beyond simple identification. Branding, marketing, sponsorships, identity, and loyalty are all interconnected with what number a driver or team uses. So, who actually owns the rights to NASCAR car numbers, and how are they chosen across teams in the series?
Who owns the driver’s number?
While NASCAR fans may eternally associate the No. 3 car with Dale Earnhardt or Richard Childress Racing to a lesser extent, it is not the driver, team, or sponsors that own the rights to use car numbers. Instead, NASCAR itself owns each number.
Each number used in NASCAR racing is owned by the racing series, which then licenses it for use to identify a car annually. Teams may request specific numbers, but as NASCAR owns them, it is at the parenting body’s discretion as to which driver/team uses which number.
How NASCAR licenses out numbers
NASCAR teams request car numbers each year from NASCAR. The sanctioning body then licenses the numbers based on these requests. If more than one team requests a specific number, the team that filed its request first typically receives that number, according to Nationwide.
Additionally, as NASCAR owns the rights to use numbers, teams cannot transfer them to another team.
A recent example of a major number change is Kyle Busch’s car, now sporting the No. 8. Busch’s car was identified as the No. 18 with Joe Gibbs Racing from 2008-2022. Still, with Busch switching allegiance to Richard Childress Racing ahead of the 2023 season, his car is now identified as No. 8 with Joe Gibbs Racing, according to NASCAR.
The recent history of the No. 8 in NASCAR underscores how the use of specific numbers can change over time depending on which team is granted their licensing. The No. 8 was famously used by Dale Earnhardt Jr. when Dale Earnhardt Inc., Earnhardt Jr.’s former team, was granted the license to use the “8.” When Earnhardt Jr. left DEI for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he began using the No. 88., partly because DEI continued to hold the license to use No. 8 the following season. It was then used most famously by Mark Martin following Earnhardt Jr.’s departure from the team.
In 2018, the No. 8 returned to NASCAR’s top series after its license was granted to Richard Childress Racing. The No. 8 car has been used on RCR cars in the Cup Series since 2018, including for Kyle Busch’s car beginning in the 2023 season.
Do any racers have triple-digit numbers?
NASCAR once issued triple-digit numbers. For instance, in January 1968, legendary driver Dan Gurney won a race at California’s Riverside International Raceway, driving the No. 121. Fellow famed sports car driver Parnelli Jones finished third in the No. 115.
However, NASCAR no longer issues triple-digit numbers in the sport’s top series.
Famous NASCAR numbers and who they belong to
Some numbers will be forever associated with specific drivers and teams. For instance, NASCAR’s winningest driver, Richard Petty, drove the No. 43 in 192 out of his 200 wins in NASCAR’s top division.
Similarly, the No. 3 is linked forever to Dale Earnhardt. However, the number is now used by Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, who was Earnhardt’s car owner for decades before Earnhardt was killed during the 2001 Daytona 500.
Other notable driver/number associations include Jeff Gordon in the No. 24, Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48, Bill Elliott and Chase Elliott in the No. 9, and the Wood Brothers racing team’s use of the No. 21.
The number that has captured the most wins in NASCAR’s top division is No. 11, according to NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. The No. 11 car has earned 231 wins in NASCAR’s premier series with victories from Cale Yarbrough, Ned Jarrett, Darell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Buddy Baker, and Denny Hamlin.