Baseball players don’t speak to pitchers in the dugout with a no-hitter in progress. Golfers mark their ball on greens with a lucky coin. And athletes in many sports, including NASCAR, avoid wearing the No. 13. There’s not a scintilla of evidence supporting the baseball and golf superstitions, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone other than Johnny Rutherford who’s had much luck driving the No. 13 car in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Triskaidekaphobia has a long NASCAR history
Triskaidekaphobia has existed in world culture for centuries, with some research pinning fear of the No. 13 to the death of Jesus Christ after betrayal by Judas, the 13th disciple. Wilt Chamberlain, Dan Marino, and Alex Rodriguez are examples of athletes whose careers worked out just fine while wearing the number, but others have wanted no part of it.
That extends to the NASCAR Cup Series, where 70 competitors have driven the No. 13 car more than 600 times since 1949, but no one has ever won a points race while doing so. The dry spell covers everything from Chevys and Fords to Hudsons and Mercurys, though there is an asterisk involving three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford.
More than half the failed attempts have come in the past decade. The most persistent of the bunch to have tried has been Casey Mears, who drove Toyotas, Fords, or Chevys for Germain Racing 227 times from 2010-16 without getting to victory lane.
Ty Dillon replaced Mears and went 0-for-144 the next four seasons. When Geico pulled out as a sponsor after the 2020 season – now there’s some bad luck for you — the owners sold their charter to 23XI Racing. Founders Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin had the wisdom to switch their ride to the No. 23 driven by Bubba Wallace.
Johnny Rutherford beat the odds as the luckiest ‘unlucky NASCAR driver
Technically, drivers of the No. 13 car have not been completely blanked in the NASCAR Cup Series. If you account for non-points races, then the unluckiest number in sports is actually 1-for-649. The one victory belongs to Johnny Rutherford in one of the 40-lap dual qualifying races for the 1963 Daytona 500.
Rutherford was driving for owner Smokey Yunick. Not only was Rutherford competing in the No. 13 for the first time, but it was also his NASCAR debut. Rutherford went on to place ninth that week in the Daytona 500. Rutherford would race in the NASCAR Cup Series 33 more times over a quarter of a century, but he never won again, nor did he ever drive the No. 13 again.
It’s not as though Rutherford was a failure. Driving in the USAC and IndyCar circuits from 1962-94, Rutherford triumphed 30 times in 315 races. The victories included the 1973, ’76, and ’80 Indianapolis 500s.
Another superstition involves car colors
Aside from the No. 13 that only Johnny Rutherford has tamed, the superstition most often cited as bad luck in auto racing is the color green. How Stuff Works cites the deaths of several spectators struck by driver Lee Oldfield at the New York State Fair in Syracuse in 1910. A decade later, Gaston Chevrolet – the brother of car company founder Louis Chevrolet – died in a crash during a race in Beverly Hills.
Sometimes, however, superstition has to give way to sponsorship. Marketing deals can be worth millions of dollars a year, so ditching a color scheme out of unsubstantiated and unscientific fears isn’t an option.
Driving the green Gatorade and Mountain Dew cars was not an issue for Darrell Waltrip. Nor did Kyle Busch (Interstate Batteries) or Carl Edwards (Scott’s) feel the need to shy away from the color. On the other hand, Danica Patrick never won a NASCAR race while sponsored by GoDaddy.
All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.