How Jeff Gordon's Car Number Nearly Became No. 46

Jeff Gordon

Had it not been for the movie "Days of Thunder," this would have been Jeff Gordon's car. (Photo Courtesy Ray Evernham)

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What might have been? All those No. 24 tattoos vowing allegiance to Jeff Gordon would have never decorated torsos, arms and legs. Those No. 24 diecast cars would have never been made. And a losing streak of epic proportions would have continued.

Yes, Jeff Gordon’s car number was to have been No. 46.

You know that if you saw the jaw-dropping tweet from Ray Evernham, Gordon’s former crew chief, that showed two pictures of Rainbow-colored race cars with the No. 46 on the door instead of the No. 24. But that is only part of the story. 

You likely haven’t heard the whole story of how one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers nearly had a number that has had little significance throughout sports.

Until now.

Gordon joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1992 and the plan was to run the No. 46. Hendrick used that number for one race in 1989 and another in 1990 with Greg Sacks driving a car to film racing scenes for “Days of Thunder.’’ Cole Trickle (played by Tom Cruise) drove the No. 46 car in the movie.

An issue arose when John Bickford, Gordon’s stepfather, looked into trademarking the No. 46. Bickford sought to create a licensing program around Gordon but discovered that Paramount Pictures had secured the licensing rights for that number for toys, apparel and other souvenirs affiliated with the movie - released two years before Gordon’s series debut.

Bickford told Hendrick Motorsports officials that they would have to change the number to something other than 46.

But to what?

“They went through a series of numbers available from NASCAR, presented those numbers to Rick (Hendrick) and Jeff,’’ Bickford said told Motor Racing Network. “What our thinking was we wanted a number that had no real historical connection to anything, certainly wasn’t going to have any licensing problems. The No. 24 sat there and it had no significant relevance to the industry.’’

The No. 24 had never won a race in NASCAR’s top series.

0-for-NASCAR history.

Richard Petty once drove the No. 24 in 1959 at Fayetteville, N.C., and couldn’t even place in the top 10. Bobby Allison finished outside the top 10 in more races with the No. 24 than he scored top-10 finishes with it. Curtis Turner lasted 19 laps in his one race with the number in 1966 before his engine expired. 

The No. 24 had no baggage of success. It was the perfect number for a driver who would change the sport and show car owners the value of hiring drivers with sprint car backgrounds and those in their early 20s.

The next issue was the paint scheme. The Rainbow theme was there but Evernham said that the middle of the car was black not blue. That’s how artist Sam Bass originally drew the car.

Bickford recalls that DuPont officials wanted more than just drawings to see how the car looked, so the team painted a couple of cars and kept them locked behind closed doors since Gordon’s debut had not been announced. Photographs of the car were sent to DuPont and then company officials came to Hendrick Motorsports to inspect the car.

The blue that replaced the black was created just for Gordon’s car, Bickford said. It wasn’t until later that the color was made available to the public.

“What DuPont was trying to present was that they were a company of color,’’ Bickford said. “The initiative given to Sam was to create color. That’s where that rainbow stripe came from, a series of colors promoting the DuPont name.’’

That leads to the photographs of a No. 46 Rainbow-colored car Evernham posted this week. It came from a fan. Evernham admits he forgot about the number and the story behind it until seeing the pictures.

“It brought back a lot of memories,’’ Evernham told Motor Racing Network. “When we did that original ’24’ car team, it was pretty amazing. I remember building the building at the same time we were building cars. I remember heading out of the shop going ‘Do you know how to get here? No. Do you know how to get there?’ We didn’t have the cellphones and the GPS and all that craziness. A lot of the tracks we had never been to from Hendrick Motorsports.’’

The car in the photos is not Gordon’s car. It is a Talladega car the team prepared for Buddy Baker during the 1993 season as payback for the help he had provided Gordon and the team. 

In a sign of fate, Baker’s No. 46 car failed to make the race. While the No. 46 car has won 11 races in NASCAR’s top series, it has not been to Victory Lane since 1962. The car number enters this season on a 52-year losing streak.

Had it not been for “Days of Thunder,’’ the No. 46 could have been one of the NASCAR’s iconic numbers.

What would it have been like to have been the crew chief of the No. 46 car instead of the No. 24 car?

Evernham said it might have been poetic.

“I always tell everybody, ‘Look, I learned how to be a crew chief by watching ‘Days of Thunder,’ ’’ he said. “It would have been perfect. I could have been the real Harry Hogge, and Jeff could have been Cole Trickle because we used to quote things from that movie all the time like ‘You can pass on the outside,’ and ‘I gave you perfectly matched tires.’ 

“I think everybody is so used to to seeing the ’24’ it’s like second nature. It wouldn’t have mattered what number was on the car with the career Jeff has had and continues to have. Any number he used would have been a household name.’’

Still, the idea of the No. 46 inked on somebody or fans shouting for the 46 doesn’t seem right. It’s too jarring. Maybe the best thing from that movie was not what appeared on the screen but what fans saw on the track - a No. 24 car. 

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