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Sports arenas worldwide are often adorned with banners hanging from the rafters indicating certain numbers have been retired from use for that team or organization. Teams may retire the numbers of its most prolific or successful athletes to honor their legacy with the organization, while other numbers may be retired as a tribute to athletes who have died. So, does this apply to NASCAR

How are NASCAR numbers chosen?

NASCAR numbers have strong associations with specific drivers and teams. For instance, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty are forever linked with the No. 3 and No. 43, respectively, while the Wood Brothers racing team is synonymous with the No. 21. However, drivers, teams, and sponsors do not actually own the rights to use certain numbers. NASCAR owns the rights to these numbers, and each year, the organization licenses their use for teams and drivers. Teams request the use of certain numbers, but NASCAR ultimately has the discretion to assign specific numerals to cars and teams. 

Are any NASCAR driver numbers retired?

Unlike team sports, in which numbers are regularly retired across organizations, NASCAR does not retire numbers. For instance, Richard Petty earned 192 of his 200 victories in NASCAR’s top division, driving the No. 43, according to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. While such an accomplishment would typically dictate “The King’s” number be retired in team sports, Petty’s No. 43 is still in use. During the 2023 season, driver Erik Jones piloted the No. 43 car for Legacy Motor Club. 

Dale Earnhardt is another of NASCAR’s most iconic drivers who is forever linked to the No. 3. Despite Earnhardt’s legacy in the sport and his tragic death driving the No. 3 car in the 2001 Daytona 500, the No. 3 car continues to be driven in NASCAR’s top series today. The licensing for the No. 3 was granted to Richard Childress Racing for the 2023 season. Childress was Earnhardt’s car owner from 1984-2001, somewhat in keeping with the No. 3’s lineage. 

Though NASCAR does not officially retire numbers, some have been unofficially retired, including the No. 3 following Earnhardt’s death. The No. 3 was not raced in NASCAR’s premier division from Earnhardt’s 2001 death until the 2014 season when Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson, ushered the number back into use. 

The No. 61 has also been unofficially retired from use in NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour since the death of driver Richie Evans in 1985. Evans, who won nine NASCAR modified championships in a 13-year span, was killed during a testing session after capturing the 1985 title. He was named to NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998, the organization’s 50th anniversary. 

Should more drivers’ numbers be retired?

Some NASCAR faithful, like Art of Gears, believe certain numbers should be retired. Retiring specific numbers could honor the legacy of the drivers who once drove cars bearing the numerals, and some numbers will be forever linked to a particular driver. For instance, the No. 3 with Earnhardt, the No. 43 with Petty, the No. 24 with Jeff Gordon, and the No. 48 with Jimmie Johnson. 

However, retiring numbers across motorsports is rare, especially compared to “team sports” like baseball, football, and others. For instance, only one number has been retired in Formula 1, No. 17, following the on-track death of Jules Bianchi in 2015. The FIA retired the No. 43 from the World Rally Championship competition in 2023 following the death of famed driver Ken Block, but such number retirements aren’t commonplace across motorsports. 

Ultimately, the decision to retire NASCAR numbers rests with its governing body, so while fans petition for certain numbers to be retired, NASCAR has the only real say in the matter.