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Chase and Bill Elliott surprised, touched by Hendrick using No. 9

As Hendrick Motorsports prepares for one of its most dynamically changing seasons in 2018, the organization surprised the NASCAR world and a couple special participants this week announcing Chase Elliott’s number would be “9” next year — a number particularly special to Elliott and his great racing family.

Hendrick newcomer next year, William Byron, will take over the No. 24 for his rookie season. Elliott will steer the No. 9, Alex Bowman is slated for the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 and of course, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson remains the one constant in the equation — steering his Hall of Fame-bound No. 48.  The team will not use the No. 5 next year.

Elliott, 21, — just back from a European vacation with friends, including Wood Brothers’ driver Ryan Blaney — said he was caught off guard by the news happening this week.

“It was a big surprise actually,’’ Elliott told NASCAR.com. “To be honest, I really didn’t know anything about it until last week while I was on my trip actually.

“I owe a lot of it to Dale Jr. He was a big advocate of this happening and honestly, I’ve had more conversation with him about it than I had anybody else. It’s something he and I had been talking about for a good while. I think he might have swayed Mr. Hendrick a little bit to it all working out. I got to thank him for that’s for sure.’’

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Elliott’s father, Hall of Fame NASCAR Cup champion Bill Elliott was equally pleased and touched by Hendrick’s willingness to take on a new number. It’s special and identifying for the Elliott family, who for generations used a form of “9” on their cars racing at tracks near their native Dawsonville, Georgia.

“It means a lot,’’ Bill Elliott said. “The thing is, I grew up racing and Chase grew up racing the No. 9. It was an honor for Chase to drive for Mr. Hendrick in the 24 and it’s such an iconic number, but all my legacy has been in the 9 and basically all of Chase’s legacy has been in the 9.

“He won the 2014 (XFINITY) championship in the 9 car and ran two years in that series in the 9 car for Dale Jr. That being said, I know it was a really big thing for him and I know he wants to carry that on.

“It’s changing again at HMS so it kind of made it easy for this to evolve into the next chapter. It’s very special for our family and I believe it’s very special for Chase. This is what he really wanted and this is a special part of his career.”

Bill Elliott acknowledged he’s especially grateful for the opportunity because he didn’t know of many times Cup father-and-son drivers had used the same number.

Ralph Earnhardt, for example, never drove the No. 3 that his famous Hall of Fame son, the late Dale Earnhardt drove. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never steered that No. 3 in Cup competition, although he won back-to-back XFINITY Series titles in the No. 3 in 1998-99.

RELATED: Bill Elliott says the No. 9 has been an ongoing evolution

“I’ve had a tie to it for a long time,’’ Chase Elliott said. “I’ve run that number ever since I could remember. When it wasn’t available I ran the 94 … always had a 9 in it somewhere. It’s a sense of being home in a lot of ways and it definitely feels right.” 

Social media was clearly in favor of the number change as well – using #LegacyLives and #Comin9Home to identify the news on Twitter.

“It is amazing,’’ Elliott said of the positive feedback. “Growing up around racing and being tied to a number for a majority of my life and liking a number because of racing, I can kind of see where that enthusiasm would come from and in support of it. I can understand it, if you’re someone who has followed the sport in the past or been a recent fan, it’s not too hard to dig back in my dad’s racing and find it’s there and if you dig back in my racing you’ll find it’s there.

“It’s definitely really cool to see people are as fired up as I am about that.’’