By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Will Chase Elliott score a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in his last 12 races in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet?
Or will William Byron be the first to do the honors when he moves into the No. 24 ride next year, with Elliott set to drive the No. 9 -- a number replete with Elliott family history.
When Elliott takes the green flag in Sunday's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (on NBCSN at 6 p.m. ET), it will mark the 1,439th time the No. 24 has run in competition at NASCAR's highest level. The car number, driven for the first time at Daytona in 1950 with Dick Clothier behind the wheel, has been to Victory Lane 93 times -- all with four-time champion Jeff Gordon in the seat.
So if Elliott happens to win before his tenure in the No. 24 ends, he'll be the only driver other than Gordon to take a checkered flag with that number. And with Elliott on the playoff bubble, a victory in the next two races -- before the playoff field is set -- would be particularly helpful.
"Excited for the rest of this season," Elliott said on Friday before opening practice at Darlington. "Definitely, as I have said throughout the week, too, you know I have an opportunity to add on to the success Jeff has had in this car, and I would like to do that before I don't have that opportunity anymore."
When Elliott switches to the No. 9 next year, he'll be driving the same car number that carried his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, to 38 of his 44 career victories and a series championship in 1988. Chase Elliott had no second thoughts about making the switch.
"Any time you have a chance to kind of go back to where you came from in a sense with your number... that's a number I've been tied to for a long time," Elliott said. "When you are a kid, and you go and you are going to play soccer for the first time and you pick No. 9, I feel like from there you are always going to have that connection with it, or whatever.
"So, for me, no, it was pretty easy to want to take that opportunity. The only thought I have had is the No. 24, it really has become home for me over the past year and a half and I feel like I have kind of got to that point with it and felt at home. So that's the only thing to it, but no, it was a no brainer for me to want to take that chance."
And when he climbs into the No. 9 for the first time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Elliott will have the chance to add to another legacy -- one that's a lot more personal.
THESE DAYS, MARTIN WOULD RATHER WATCH THAN DRIVE
Throughout his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin was always the consummate gentleman behind the wheel.
If you had a faster car, Martin would cede a position to you, provided you extended the same courtesy when his car was better.
With the introduction of double-file restarts in 2009, and the advent of stage racing this season, politeness on the track has become all but obsolete. And the throwback paint schemes that highlight this weekend belie the degree to which racing has changed since Martin's heyday.
"I believe it's new-school racing with old-school paint schemes," Martin characterized Bojangles' Southern 500 weekend at Darlington Raceway. "The importance of the throwback weekend here that they have at Darlington is really showing respect for the legends of this sport. The racing has just moved way past back in that day. The double-file restarts are really pretty chaotic and insane, and the cars are so fast, and the pavement here is so much better than it was back then.
"It's amazing that these guys can run around this place, it always was, but the speed of the cars today, that additional two or three seconds a lap that they run now makes it more difficult and probably hairier than ever. I think the race will be incredible. I did some double-file restarts here, and it certainly wasn't my favorite thing to do. I enjoy watching them, but I didn't enjoy doing them."
Clint Bowyer, who ran his first full season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2006, has seen a change in intensity during his time in the sport. This weekend at Darlington, Bowyer's No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford is sporting a Carolina Ford Dealers paint scheme reminiscent of the car Martin drove in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for team owner Bill Davis from 1988 to 1991.
"I certainly wasn't around in 1989 when this paint scheme was on the side of Mark's car, but just in my tenure being in this sport, the evolution of the cars is just so much further than when I started," Bowyer said. "You used to have to manage tires, your equipment, all these things to manage a race to get the most out of any given weekend, let alone a track as unique as Darlington.
"Now it just seems like with the tires, with the equipment, with everything the way it has evolved, it's almost a qualifying lap driving as hard as you can every single lap, and the car and equipment will take it. It's definitely different than the way it was even 10-12 years ago when I started."
A spin in final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice didn't prevent Kyle Busch from topping the speed chart. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota kept his car off the wall, returned to the track with fresh tires and ran 173.320 mph to pace the session...
Trevor Bayne wasn't as fortunate. The driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford picked up a large Darlington stripe on the right side of his car, which the team opted to repair...
Similarly, Kyle Larson scraped the wall during final practice and suffered cosmetic damage to the No. 42 Chevrolet, which his Chip Ganassi Racing team was repairing. On the positive side, Larson was fastest in opening practice with a lap at 173.064 mph.