Owners have rights, too, Teresa Earnhardt included

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Mark Martin believes the angry No. 8 fans, along with some of us reporters, need a NASCAR history lesson.

Martin thinks Dale Earnhardt Inc. owner Teresa Earnhardt is being unfairly criticized for not allowing the No. 8 to go with Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Hendrick Motorsports next season.

"There's another side to it than what has been presented," Martin said. "And it's the media's duty to do a little homework. If you do the history on the thing, there's a whole different side to it besides the feelings of the Red Nation."

Your wish is our command, Mark. Tell us what we should know, and what the "Free The 8" legion of Junior fans don't understand.

"In this business, the standard has always been that the number stays with the owner," Martin said. "The driver has his superstardom to carry wherever he may go."

Junior has his name, a new number (81 looks good) and soon a new primary sponsor that will pony up for more than $25 million a year. Not a bad deal.

DEI deserves to keep the 8, Martin says, because team owners also have some rights.

So get over it, 8 lovers.

"It's a touchy situation that I don't really care to be in the middle of," Martin said. "But the thing that Earnhardt fans need to remember, whether they be Junior or Senior fans, is they should think about what they say before they disrespect any member of the Earnhardt family.

"It should matter to a lot of Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans that the number stays with the owner, just as the 6 did."

Martin drove a No. 6 Ford at Roush Racing for 19 years, but he left at the end of last season. Martin became a DEI employee last month when Ginn Racing merged with DEI.

Did Martin consider taking the No. 6 with him when he left Jack Roush's team?

"I understand how it works, so I never asked," Martin said. "Why would you ask when you know the answer is no? Roush Racing had equity in that number. It meant something to them. It had significance to their organization.

"But I realize this is a little different situation. Four weeks ago, I never even had a dream that I would be working at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. I have tremendous respect for Dale Earnhardt and every member of his family."

That's one reason why Martin feels Junior fans should cut Teresa a break.

"Dale Jr. made a choice to get a new start and put himself in position to try to win a championship," Martin said. "I think that's great. But that also came with the chance the number would stay with DEI, where it has been since 1984.

"I raced against Dale Sr. wheel-to-wheel in the 1980s in the Busch Series when he was in a No. 8 car. That was Teresa and Dale Earnhardt's number for that team."

Martin's well-informed lecture also included a footnote about Dale Sr., who wasn't always in the black No. 3 for Richard Childress Racing

"Dale Earnhardt won his first championship in the No. 2," Martin said.

Earnhardt's first Cup title came in 1980 for Rod Osterlund. His other six championships were in the No. 3 for Childress. Childress hasn't used the 3 since Earnhardt's death in 2001.

Officially, all car numbers are owned by NASCAR and assigned to team owners. But owners typically keep the numbers as long as they are involved in the sport.

If you really want to know the history of NASCAR numbers through the years, Jim Hunter is the man to ask. Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of communications, has been doing this stuff for five decades.

So what's his take on the controversy of the 8?

"I totally agree with Mark," Hunter said. "I think Teresa Earnhardt is being unfairly judged on this issue."

Hunter listed specific examples involving some of NASCAR's legends.

"If you look back over the years, that's true even for an icon like Dale Sr. and the No. 3," Hunter said. "People who have been around a long time remember another icon, Junior Johnson, ran the 3 prior to Dale Sr.

"David Pearson is best known for the 21 car, but he also ran the No. 6, for Cotton Owens, that later became famous with Mark Martin."

The difference between then and now is money. Drivers back in the day weren't making tons of cash off licensing deals from selling model cars, T-shirts, jackets and caps with a number attached to them.

No one sells more than Junior, but so what? Now he gets to sell a whole new product line.

And don't lie. You 8 worshipers are going to buy it as fast as they can make it.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.