Martin will join Almirola in No. 8 car for 2008 season

RICHMOND, Va. -- Mark Martin didn't have to look far on Friday to see the number he'll drive the next two seasons for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Parked next to the No. 01 hauler he's shared this season with Aric Almirola and Regan Smith was the No. 8 hauler currently occupied by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Martin and Almirola will take over the car and number driven by NASCAR's most popular driver in 2008. Martin also will split the ride in 2009.

"I know that there will be a backlash from a certain number of his [Earnhardt's] fans," Martin said before practice at Richmond International Raceway. "But you have to understand that number has a lot of meaning to Dale Earnhardt Inc.

"I raced against Dale Sr. in the No. 8 Busch car owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 1984. It's very important to this company and part of keeping Dale Earnhardt's legacy alive."

Martin didn't make the decision lightly. He talked to NASCAR president Mike Helton and Richard Childress, who owns the No. 3 that Dale Earnhardt Sr. won six of his seven titles with at Richard Childress Racing, before making a final decision.

"And really Richard was the one that made me feel really good about it," Martin said. "Unfortunately in this business, the numbers pretty much stay with the owners. That's all they have.

"Whereas for example, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets to take his name and his super stardom anywhere he wants to go."

Childress reminded Martin that he was mentioned by the late Earnhardt as a post-retirement candidate for the No. 3 before his death in 2001.

"I told him if he drove the 8 he would be one of the guys that I think the fans would accept," Childress said. "I know that if Dale was here today he would be proud to watch him drive the 8 car."

Earnhardt had hoped to carry the number with him to Hendrick Motorsports next season, but was unwilling to agree to the terms DEI owner/stepmother Teresa Earnhardt wanted in exchange.

Childress said it's unfair for fans to blame Teresa.

"I know that no matter the situation Dale would have kept the 8 for his company, as part of the legacy of DEI," he said. "Just like he wanted me to keep the 3 even when he retired."

Jeff Burton, whom Childress said Earnhardt also mentioned as a candidate to drive the 3 one day, agreed.

"The whole number thing has been a great fascination thing," he said. "I used to drive the 8. It's very clear in our sport that the car owner is the number. That is the identity of the car owner. I have a great deal of respect for why Dale Jr. wants to drive the 8.

"Listen. I ran the No. 12 because that was my dad's number that he played football and baseball. That's my family number. It means as much to me as that 8 does to Junior. But that number doesn't belong to me. It belongs to Roger Penske."

Martin drove the No. 6 for Roush Fenway Racing for 19 seasons, but never asked owner Jack Roush for permission to carry it to Ginn Racing because he "understands how this works."

"The owners, they build equity in the numbers," he said. "It's really an industry standard for the number to stay with the car owner.

"I'm sorry for the ones that don't like it. The ones that do I appreciate them."

Martin will drive in 23 to 26 races with Almirola taking the rest. Sponsor U.S. Army, crew chief Ryan Pemberton and most of the No. 01 crew that has worked with Martin this season also will move to the 8.

Smith will drive the No. 01 next season.

DEI officials once described next year as a transition year for the car, hoping to land one of the high profile free agents that will become available to run a full schedule in 2009.

They now are content that Martin, who came to DEI as part of the recent merger with Ginn Racing, can satisfy sponsors and team needs for more than a year.

"DEI is talking to me about long term, very long-term stuff," said Martin, who also heads DEI's developmental driver program. "I just could have never envisioned this a year ago. The opportunity to serve as so many purposes at Dale Earnhardt Inc. is really special.

"I just look forward to getting the competition side of it polished up a little bit."

David Newton covers Nextel Cup racing for ESPN.com.