The ‘little hints’ that helped put Chase Elliott in the No. 9 this season

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – The biggest number swap of the 2018 season might have started with a few well-timed emojis.

Those were the subtle nudges that Chase Elliott sent via text messages to Rick Hendrick, who said he picked up on those “little hints” in deciding to give the second-generation star the No. 9 that his father, Bill, made famous in a Hall of Fame career.

Elliott drove the past two seasons in the No. 24 Chevrolet. That now belongs to rookie teammate William Bryon, who also inadvertently played a role in the switch.

“I’d always kind of joked with (Hendrick),” Elliott told NBC Sports on the eve of Sunday’s Daytona 500. “William running the No. 9 in Xfinity (last season), he obviously was winning a lot and doing a lot of great things. So I’d always offer up a good text of, ‘That 9 looks good on the track!’ with a winky face. I never expected anything to ever really come of it, but I think he knew that was always my favorite number and I guess he was listening because it turned out good.”

In a recent video posted by Hendrick Motorsports, the team owner explained he had heard Elliott – and the pleas from his swelling fan base (several stars have predicted Elliott will succeed Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Most Popular Driver this season). It still wasn’t an easy decision for Hendrick, who had to mothball the No. 5 that carried his organization to its first victory on April 29, 1984.

“It was tough for me to give up the 5 car,” Hendrick said. “But the world changes. And I know what that meant to Chase, and I know what it meant to Bill Elliott and his family. And I know what it means to the sport.

“You have to look at things beyond what’s in these walls. You have to look at what’s good for NASCAR, and Chase and the 9 car is good for NASCAR. There are a tremendous amount of grassroots fans that pull for Bill Elliott and the 9. But, Chase, I knew from the very beginning, he would drop these little hints. So if it means that much to him, it means that much to the sport and the fans, then I’m all in. I’m excited about the 9, and I’m wanting for that first win.”

Elliott still his seeking his first official points victory in NASCAR’s premier series, but he took the No. 9 to victory lane at Daytona International Speedway in the second of two qualifying races Thursday.

“For me, it’s kind of home, and it’s a number I have a lot of history, and obviously my dad has a lot of history with, but for me, more than anything, it’s where I belong,” he said. “I grew up racing that number. That’s the number I ran that got me to where I am today. So to be able to have that number at the highest level of your sport is pretty special.”