Posted: 10:00 am Wednesday, February 14th, 2018
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
22-year-old Chase Elliott is driving the No. 9 car in 2018 and the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a lot to do with it.
Elliott’s arrival full-time in NASCAR came on the wings of Earnhardt Jr., in the form of the 2014 NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule in the No. 9 NAPA Chevy for JR Motorsports. One championship and two seasons later, Elliott found himself replacing the retiring Jeff Gordon in the legendary Hendrick Motorsports No. 24, as a teammate to Earnhardt Jr. Now entering his third season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Elliott remains with his same race team, but sheds one famous number for a more familiar one.
At an Atlanta Motor Speedway media day, the biggest questions Elliott answered were about driving the No. 9 that his father, Bill, won 38 of his 44 Cup wins with. Bill Elliott also won the 1988 Cup championship in the famous No. 9 Coor’s Ford. And to no surprise, Elliott said that driving the number that he himself had run from his childhood and in the Xfinity Series was extremely important. But how did Elliott manage to talk car owner Rick Hendrick into not running the No. 5, the original number the team ran when it started in 1984, in favor of the 9? 2017 was a contract year, but Elliott said that the 9 was not a bargaining chip in those negotiations. So what was it?
“To be honest, I’ve always kind of poked at [Hendrick] and joked about it for years, but I didn’t really expect anything to come of it. I was happy where I was at,” Elliott told WSB. A NASCAR history buff and famous NASCAR son in his own right, Earnhardt Jr. caught wind of Elliott’s “joking.”
“As I continued to joke about it, I think Dale [Earnhardt Jr.] was the one to really kind of push it over the edge. He was a really big pusher of it.” So, as if they were drafting together at a plate track, Elliott asked Earnhardt Jr. for more of a draft. “And as I kind of caught wind that the conversation had been coming up, I asked Dale, ‘Hey, I hear there is a chance this might happen. I need your help. I need you to make it known that this is a good idea, because it is!’”
Earnhardt Jr. got famous in the No. 8 car, but couldn’t take that with him when he left Dale Earnhardt, Inc. to drive for Hendrick in 2008. That is why he drove the No. 88 car for ten seasons. And Dale Earnhardt was famous in the No. 3 car, but that number is owned by Richard Childress, so Earnhardt Jr. never got to drive the 3 in a MENCS race. But he saw an opening to help Elliott in that way, Elliott said.
“And he was way ahead of me. He had been pushing for it. He was the one to really make it happen at the end of the day. You’ll have to ask him, because I heard more about the situation from him than I did from anybody else. They didn’t have to ask me because they knew I would want to do it.”
As part of the media presentation Tuesday, AMS asked fans to send in lucky charms for Elliott to help him score his first win. Track president Ed Clark did a similar promotion for Bill Elliott at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1983 and Elliott won a few weeks later in Riverside, California. That was Elliott’s 116th-career start and he also had eight previous runner-up finishes. Chase Elliott has 77-career Cup starts and seven second-place finishes.
Despite the big collection of charms that fans sent in, Elliott’s biggest lucky charm may be that No. 9 on the doors and roof of his car. Elliott won dozens of races with that number in go-karts, late models, and up to the Xfinity Series.
Rookie William Byron will drive the No. 24 now with what was the No. 5 team in the Cup Series. Interestingly enough, the 20-year-old Byron drove the No. 9 thru the ranks and won championships in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, Xfinity Series, and almost won it in the Camping World Truck Series with that number. When WSB pointed that fact out to Elliott, he just smiled about the irony. “I had it first.”