Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Greatest By Number: #99-90

Over this unusual offseason, my mind got to wandering about possible subjects to tackle during this time. I thought it was best to prepare for delays and weekends with fewer events taking place than scheduled or no events at all. Something would have to fill the space. 

One subject was the "All-Time, One-Time Starter Grid," and that required a lot of time to go over the notes and history books and compile the best list. Another subject was this: Who is the best motorsports competitor for each number? 

There are a lot of competitions and a lot of famous numbers, but who is the greatest of them all for each number? It is a completely subjective exercise, but each competitor has a case. 

Some numbers are six or seven competitors deep when it comes to the all-time best and those will likely make somebody mad. Others had one clear option. And then there was the #53. We will get to the #53 in due time. 

A few things to know before we get started.

1. Only numbers zero through 99. 

That means no #01 or #09 or #02 or #199. Apologies off the bat to Scott Pruett (and his family at home), Brad Keselowski, Justin Wilson and Travis Pastrana. We're doing 100 numbers here and #09 and #02 are just the numbers nine and two, but with a zero in front of them. And #00 isn't in there either. Don't think you are going to see Buckshot Jones on this list either. 

2. We have to take into consideration what each competitor did with that number, but it is open to take a driver who used a number as a one-off. Trust me on this one. Some numbers are not frequently used, and it was difficult to come up with one competitor. 

3. As important as full-time use of a number is, we will take notable one-offs. We will take into consideration historic race cars, the ones that stand out in motorsports history. It might be a number only used once or twice, but if it was used in a historic race and everyone can picture that driver with that number, we will use it. 

4. There are some special considerations. Numbers have become more of an identifier over the last 40 years. They have become a mark of a driver. Something that has meaning for generations. 

But we have an entire crop of drivers who raced at a time when the number constantly changed: Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill. 

All those drivers raced when their numbers changed between races. It was dependent on local organizers. Their numbers were all over the map. There are a few legacy picks I made.

5. No limit to how many times a driver can be chosen, but I did my best to spread it out and try to get drivers for many different championships around the globe. There could be a few drivers that have been awarded multiple numbers. That's ok, because these drivers are some of the best all time. 

6. This is a ten-part series and I am starting with the highest numbers. There will be more discussion and anger with the lower numbers. I am going to make you wait for those because the higher numbers are harder to assign, and I think those are more enjoyable to think about. 

7. Each entry will include the number, who is recognized as the greatest for that number, why that person is recognized, and I will finish with some notable drivers that came short. 

8. Reminder: This is for fun. Don't take it too seriously. 

Today, we start with the 90s. 

#99: Jorge Lorzeno
Lorenzo won three MotoGP world championships using the #99 and from 2008 to 2016 he never finished worse than fourth in the championship. He did use the #48 throughout his career in the lower divisions and in his first MotoGP season, and he used the #1 after his first 250cc championship and first MotoGP title, but he used the #99 for 171 races and he won 39 times with that number. 

He burst onto the scene and immediately matched the pace as his Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi, effectively forcing Rossi to Ducati after the 2010 season. Lorenzo could stir the pot, but he was one of the top riders of the last decade. 

Honorable mentions: 
Greg Moore (CART 1996-1999 with five race victories and he also won the 1995 Indy Lights championship in car #99 with ten victories in 12 races.)

Tony Bettenhausen (1951 AAA Championship Car champion)

Alex Gurney/Jon Fogarty (Two-time Grand-Am Daytona Prototypes champions and winners of 16 races over seven seasons)

Juan Manuel Fangio II (1992-93 IMSA GTP champion with victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring each year)

Carl Edwards (23 NASCAR Cup Series victories and six NASCAR Truck Series victories)

Jeff Burton (17 NASCAR Cup Series victories and one NASCAR Grand National Series victory)

#98: Parnelli Jones
It does not get more famous than Parnelli Jones driving Ol' Calhoun for J.C. Agajanian. All six of Jones' IndyCar victories came in car #98, including his only Indianapolis 500 victory in 1963, but the number of victories does not tell the entire story. 

Jones never started worse than fifth in the Indianapolis 500 in car #98. He led 27 laps as a rookie and 120 laps as a sophomore, but a cut to his face and fading brakes halted his hopes for victory in his first two years. His third attempt saw him led 167 laps and overcome an oil leak to take victory. If it weren't for a pit fire the year after that Jones might have been a back-to-back winner. 

It might have been Agajanian's number, but that golden #98 shouts Parnelli Jones. 

Honorable Mentions:
Alexander Rossi (2016 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2017 Watkins Glen winner)

LeeRoy Yarbrough (Ten NASCAR Cup Series victories including the 1969 Daytona 500, 1969 World 600 and a rain-shortened 1969 Southern 500)

#97: Shane van Gisbergen
We are heading to the Southern Hemisphere and the New Zealander van Gisbergen has made the #97 his ever since the 2013 Supercars season. He has won 39 Supercars races since adopting the #97 and he won the 2016 Supercars championship using the number. He and Alexandre Prémat also won the Endurance Cup that season, picking up three runner-up finishes and a victory between the four races at Sandown, Bathurst and Surfers Paradise. 

In 2020, van Gisbergen picked up his first Bathurst 1000 victory with Garth Tander. Van Gisbergen has never finished worse than fourth in the championship with car #97. 

Honorable Mention:
Kurt Busch (2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion. 14 Cup victories in Car #97).

#96: Dan Gurney
We are not leaving Dan Gurney out of something like this, and truth be told, there are not many standout competitors to use the #96. 

How does Dan Gurney get this honor? 

His victory in the inaugural Daytona Continental 3 Hours, which has since morphed into the 24 Hours of Daytona. Completing 82 laps in the 180-minute time frame, Gurney won in a Lotus 19 over a Ferrari 246 SP from North American Racing Team, which Phil Hill and Ricardo Rodríguez shared, and Jim Hall was third in the Chaparral 1. 

It might be one race, but it is Dan Gurney we are talking about it. Let him have it!

Honorable Mentions:
Al Unser (Unser's first IndyCar victory came in car #96 at the 1965 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. It is the only victory for car #96 in IndyCar history).

Ray Elder (Two NASCAR Cup victories, but here is where it gets interesting. Elder won the 1971 Motor Trend 500 at Riverside, the only victory for car #96 in NASCAR, but he won the Golden State 400 at Riverside the following year in car #96W because Elder was a NASCAR West Series entry in the Cup race. Elder won 45 West Series races in car #96 and six championships... ok, maybe Elder deserves it more than Dan Gurney but Gurney is on another level, regional stock car success be damned).

Jon Fogarty (2004 Atlantics Champion with six victories, eight podium finishes and nine top five finishes in 12 starts).

#95: Jim Pace
This is all for Pace's 1994 IMSA GTU championship. Pace won three races at Road Atlanta, Indianapolis Raceway Park and Laguna Seca driving for Leitzinger Racing. 

Pace had to hold off Peruvian Eduardo Dibos to win the championship and a fourth-place finish in the Phoenix finale meant he won the championship by only four points over Dibos. Bill Auberlen won two races that season and through nine races there were six different winners with Pace and Auberlen the only drivers to win multiple times. 

Two years later, Pace would to win the 24 Hours of Daytona overall with Wayne Taylor and Scott Sharp, albeit not in car #95.

Honorable Mentions:
Darrell Waltrip (Used car #95 in the 1974 NASCAR Cup Series season, where he had seven top five finishes, 11 top ten finishes and a pole position from 16 starts).

Peter Revson (Won the second Indy 200 race in 1969, his only IndyCar victory, ahead of Mario Andretti. Revson inherited the lead after Gordon Johncock lost an engine with 13 laps to go).

#94: Ken Roczen
Roczen has been rocking the #94 since he started racing in Europe and his first notable triumph was taking the 2011 MX2 world championship. Since coming to America, Roczen had racked up a handful of championships. 

First, it was the 2013 250cc West Supercross title over Eli Tomac, Cole Seely and Jason Anderson. The following year he took his first of two AMA 450cc championships with the second coming in 2016. 

He has won 41 races in his American career between Motocross and Supercross. It has also been a career where injuries cost him two seasons and kept him from that elusive 450cc Supercross championship. His 18 overall Motocross victories has him ranked tied for seventh all-time. 

Honorable Mentions:
Pascal Wehrlein (2015 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters champion, 39 Formula One starts with six points scored and 17 Formula E starts with his best finish being second at Santiago in his second start).

Terry Labonte (58 NASCAR Cup Series starts, five top five finishes, 23 top ten finishes, one pole position, no victories).

Sterling Marlin (58 NASCAR Cup Series starts, nine top five finishes, 23 top ten finishes, no victories).

Bill Elliott (185 NASCAR Cup Series starts, 13 top five finishes, 45 top ten finishes, three pole positions, zero victories)

Bill Auberlen/Paul Dalla Lana (Seven victories in the Grand-AM GT class victories between 2011 and 2013). 

#93: Marc Márquez
Could you have possibly thought it was anybody but Márquez?

He has used the #93 for all 206 starts in his grand prix career, from 125cc to MotoGP. 

He has won 82 races, stood on 134 podiums, won 90 pole positions, set 73 fastest laps, scored 3,321 points and he has earned eight world championships, six of which have come in the top category. 

Márquez is the youngest premier class champion. He has the premier class record of 13 victories in a season and he matched the premier class record of ten consecutive victories, previously set by Giacomo Agostini and Mick Doohan. His 62 premier class pole positions is the all-time record. 

He has the most victories at Circuit of the Americas, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and he won at the Sachsenring in every year of the 2010s. 

Let's hope he recovers quickly from his arm injury because I don't think he is done re-writing the record books.

Honorable Mention
Dan Gurney (When Lotus came to the United States to attempt the 1963 Indianapolis 500, Gurney was entered in its #93 Lotus 34. Gurney was seventh at Indianapolis and second at Milwaukee later that season. At Trenton in September, he started second and led 97 laps before losing an oil line, the same issue that took his teammate out from the lead and which we will get to in a moment).

Dave Blaney (I honestly struggled coming up with another competitor to use the #93 that was worth mentioning, but I remember Blaney from when he had Amoco sponsorship in the Cup Series. He didn't do much memorable, but I remembered it, probably because of how rare it is to see the #93).

#92: Herb Thomas
Thomas was the first driver to win multiple NASCAR Cup Series championships, taking the top honors in 1951 and 1953. He also won 42 of his 48 Cup victories in car #92, including all three of his Southern 500 victories in 1951, 1954 and 1955. Thomas remains tied for fourth all-time in Southern 500 victories with only Jeff Gordon, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison winning more. 

He led the Cup Series in victories for three consecutive seasons from 1952-54 with 12 victories in each 1953 and 1954. From 1951 to 1956, he finished in the top five of the championship every season. His winning percentage of 21.05% is the highest in Cup Series history among drivers with at least 100 starts.

Honorable Mentions:
Bobby Unser (Unser won the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb twice in car #92  when it counted toward the IndyCar championship. One of those victories was Unser's first IndyCar triumph. 

Rodger Ward (Before Unser, Ward won his first wo IndyCar races in car #92 at Springfield and the Michigan State Fairgrounds in 1953).

Jim Clark (Clark's first three IndyCar starts were in the #92 Lotus 34. He started fifth and finished second at Indianapolis behind the aforementioned Parnelli Jones. Two and a half months later, Clark started on pole position at Milwaukee and he led all 200 laps on his way to victory over A.J. Foyt. Clark started on pole position again at Trenton a month later and led the first 49 laps before an oil line broke, knocking him out of the race).

Jimmie Johnson (Johnson won the inaugural NASCAR Grand National Series at Chicagoland driving for Herzog Motorsports in car #92. It is Johnson's only victory in NASCAR's second division).

Michael Christensen/Kévin Estre (2018-19 World GT Endurance Drivers' champions including a class victory in the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans).

#91: Tim Flock
From the first multi-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, to the second multi-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. 

Though Flock won the 1955 championship using mostly car #300 for Carl Kiekhaefer, he won the 1952 championship in car #91. Between 1951 and 1953, he won 16 races in car #91 with eight of those victories coming in his 1952 championship season, level with Thomas on victories that year, but Flock had three more top five finishes, three more top ten finishes and started one more race. 

Honorable Mentions:
Buddy Lazier (1996 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2000 Indy Racing League championship, eight IndyCar victories).

Olivier Beretta (1999 and 2000 American Le Mans Series GTS champion)

#90: Paul Tracy
It was pretty difficult to find a driver for the #90, but who would have thought an Indy Lights season would save me?

Tracy won the then-American Racing Series championship, far from the biggest highlight of his career, but he won nine of 14 races in the #90 March-Buick for Landford Racing. He opened the season with three consecutive victories at Phoenix, Long Beach and Milwaukee and won four consecutive races later in the season at Portland, Cleveland, the Meadowlands and his home race of Toronto. His victory at Mid-Ohio clinched him the title with three races remaining. 

Honorable Mentions:
Jody Ridley (The only driver to win in car #90 in the NASCAR Cup Series and the only victory for long-time owner Junie Donlavey. It came at Dover in 1981. Neil Bonnett had a two-lap led on the field when he retired. Cale Yarborough had a five-lap lead over Ridley when his engine expired with 20 laps to go. Ridley led the final 20 laps and won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison)

Michael Valiante/Richard Westbrook (Three IMSA Prototype victories, including back-to-back 6 Hours of the Glen victories and runner-up in the 2015 championship by two points)

Let's recap the 90s, the first part of this series: 

We had two grand prix motorcycle world champions...

Two NASCAR Cup Series champions...

An Indianapolis 500 winner...

A multi-time motocross champion...

An Australian Supercars champion....

An IMSA GTU champion...

An American Racing Series champion...

And Dan Gurney.

That's just round one. We got 90 numbers to go.