Obviously every NASCAR fan is familiar with the story of Junior leaving the team his father started back in 2008 to drive for Hendrick Motorsports after his stepmother, Dale Earnhardt’s wife Teresa, wouldn’t give him ownership of the team like he wanted.
And when he switched teams, Junior was also forced to give up the #8 that he had driven his entire Cup Series career. Though he had become synonymous with the 8 car, Teresa was reportedly not willing to let Junior take the number with him to Hendrick. So instead, when he made his debut for Hendrick Motorsports he went with the #88 car instead.
But the #88 wasn’t Junior’s first…well, second…choice either.
Turns out that he wanted to drive the #51 car.
Junior talked about the number switch during a recent episode of his podcast, The Dale Jr. Download.
“I wanted 51. No one else in my camp and Rick [Hendrick] or anybody else wanted 51. They were like, ’51? Why? Where’s the connection.’
I was like, ‘I dunno man, we’ll just start new.'”
But the more he thought about it, the more Junior realized that he needed to stick with a number that at least contained an 8, eventually settling on the #28 – but there was a problem with that one too.
Of course the #28 is well-known for belonging to Robert Yates Racing with drivers like Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan and Ricky Rudd in the Texaco-branded car. So before Earnhardt Jr. could secure the #28, he had to ask Yates for permission. And Yates wouldn’t give it to him:
“But then I just started thinking about our fans that love this 8 and had all this 8 stuff and I’m like, ‘Man we gotta go with something with an 8.’ And that was everybody else’s opinion too.
So I was thinking 28. 28’s it. I wanted 28. We’re gonna get 28. We’re gonna be 28. Nobody’s 28. Let’s be 28.
And they were like, ‘Well we gotta ask Yates.’ I’m like, ‘We do? Why? I don’t need to ask nobody.’
So we called Yates up, Robert, and they actually talked to Texaco. And Texaco said hard no.
Now I don’t think they had rights to this number in this series. They’re not even a sponsor anymore. But something about the history and heritage and legacy of that number was important to them.
And Yates was like, ‘Man please don’t do this.'”
But instead of the #28, Yates had another number they were willing to offer Junior – and it turned out to be a better fit anyway:
“I don’t believe they could have stopped us but they were like, ‘What about 88? We would give you 88.’
And I’m like, ‘Oh!’ We didn’t even know that was available. We didn’t know that was even a possibility.
They were like, ‘You can have 88.’ And I’m thinking, ‘That’s perfect! Instead of one 8, two 8’s!'”
They also did their best to get the font close to the #8 that he had been running – so they wouldn’t get sued by Teresa and Dale Earnhardt Inc.
“And we got the font as close as we could without getting another lawsuit. And there you have it. We went to the racetrack with 88s.”
I’ve gotta say, I’m glad they ended up going with the 88 (since keeping the 8 was apparently out of the question). Imagine all those people who would have had to try to change their #8 tattoos to a 51…