Beth Lunkenheimer and Jeff Wolfe · Wednesday July 10, 2013
Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll, and also in the comments section below!
This Week’s Question:Dale Earnhardt, Jr. mentioned in a recent press conference that he would be okay with the No. 3 returning to the track with Austin Dillon. Should RCR bring the number back with Dillon’s move to full-time in the Sprint Cup Series?
Beth Lunkenheimer, Managing Editor: It’s Been Long Enough; Bring It Back
Like most fans who were around 12 years ago when the NASCAR community suffered the loss of Dale Earnhardt, I spent a long time wishing that the No. 3 would be retired and left alone for the legacy of a man who sparked debate on both sides of the coin for his style and made history as one of just two drivers to score seven championships to date. But as I’ve watched Austin Dillon in the Truck Series and now in the Nationwide Series, it has become easier to see the No. 3 back on track.
When I watched the 1998 Daytona 500, I wasn’t old enough to grasp the importance of Earnhardt finally making the trip to victory lane. Instead, I was bummed that my favorite driver didn’t win… but I was only 14 then. Now, knowing more of the history of the sport and Earnhardt’s contributions as well as how long it took him to get that win, it means so much more to me. But with that being said, I do still think there is a time for NASCAR fans to come together and embrace the return of the No. 3 to the track—and that time is now.
I’m not here to debate whether Dillon’s performance thus far in his young career is “deserving” of the number. After all, numbers are re-used all the time in NASCAR—just look at the iconic No. 43 that “The King” made famous or the No. 22 that Fireball Roberts was driving when he suffered fatal injuries in the World 600 so many years ago. Instead, what I am here to say is that there’s no reason for Richard Childress Racing to not put the number back on the track if it’s the one the driver would like to pilot and is available. Keep in mind that it’s not like Dillon came into the Truck Series hell-bent on using a number that meant so much to NASCAR fans just because he wanted to. No, instead he wanted to use the No. 3—and has for several years—because it was his grandfather’s number before Earnhardt ever made it famous.
If that’s not enough, perhaps a word from Childress on fan reaction might help.
“It’s not going to be popular with everybody, but so many of the fans, after seeing it on this car, love it and ask for it back,” Childress said late last year. “It reminds them of seeing Dale. It brings back the memories of Dale. We haven’t (totally) made our mind up (on what style of 3). The only reason I would even consider it is because he is family.”
And who better than the grandson of the team owner the Earnhardt spent his most successful years with? Don’t you think that Dale would be proud today to see Dillon pilot the No. 3, especially with the progress he’s made in his young career? After all, he did win the Rookie of the Year in the Truck Series in 2010 before following it up with a championship in 2011.
Don’t get me wrong. Dillon isn’t going to bring the No. 3 back to the Sprint Cup Series and get cocky about being the driver to bring it back.
“As long as we have been racing and driving that 3, you see (the photos from that day) brought up. The pictures are just special, and I’m very lucky to have been in the situation that I have been in and to have grown up in a great family,” Dillon said. “They have taught me a lot of great things, and history is one of those things. I love the history of our sport, knowing about it and what it is. I cling to that number, our family tradition, and I feel fortunate that I’m the one to drive it right now.”
No, it won’t be the same, nor will it be easy to see at first. Many will compare the older Dillon brother to Earnhardt, setting up astronomical expectations for the young driver. Others still will make their arguments of why he will or won’t live up to those expectations. And even some will spew their hatred and disgust with its return. But in the end, what it comes down to is that having the No. 3 return to the track isn’t going to just kill the legacy that Dale Earnhardt built in it. Instead, it will bring up the perfect opportunity for fans and media alike to embrace the number’s return while sharing the stories that made Earnhardt one of the most polarizing and loved—or hated—drivers in NASCAR.
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: It’s Time To Hang the 3 From the Rafters
Every sport has it, and in those sports, almost every team has it. It’s a way for fans to remember their teams’ past accomplishments and their past heroes. It’s way that unmistakably identifies that a player was an unusually special part of a team’s success and history.
It’s called retiring a number, and it’s something that happens in every sport that uses numbers to identify its athletes. Major League Baseball even took the retired-number honor to a higher level in 1997 when it retired the No. 42 worn by the late and great Jackie Robinson across the entire league.
And that is why Richard Childress and NASCAR should work together to retire the No. 3. After years and generations go by, the fans of the future as well as the fans of the past will always identify the No. 3 with Dale Earnhardt, especially if it is retired. If the number returns to action, as is expected with Austin Dillon next year, the potential for more problems exists.
For Dillon, as willing as he may be to drive the No. 3 in the Sprint Cup series, it’s simply not possible for him to live up to the expectations that will be placed on the driver of No. 3 after Dale Earnhardt drove it to seven championships. Though Dillon certainly seems to have a bright future, and I certainly hope that does come to fruition for his sake, what if he goes on to have an ordinary career, with no Cup titles, maybe only a handful of wins. What would that do to the legacy of the No. 3? It wouldn’t be fair to Dillon or to the loyal Earnhardt fans who continue to enjoy the memories that Earnhardt produced while driving No. 3.
Think of this for a moment: Imagine walking into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte and seeing the black No. 3 hanging from the rafters of a special retired numbers section in the Hall. It would only gain more meaning over time. The legend of the No. 3 would continue to grow over the years. Even if you were one of the other side, an Earnhardt hater, it would be a place where you could share memories of the times he bumped someone out of the way on the way to victory (Terry Labonte at Bristol in 1999 comes to mind at the moment). And it would also be reminder that what is becoming increasingly more unlikely to happen: Earnhardt started with nearly nothing when he became a race car driver and became one of the sport’s legends. It will remind us that the American dream is still possible. It will give people hope and something to aspire to, no matter their situation.
Certainly, it’s to the credit of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that he has given the OK for Childress to bring the No. 3 back into action. And while there’s no reason to think that Junior wasn’t giving an honest answer when asked about the issue, he’s never been the type to rattle someone’s cage, so to speak, like his dad did.
Earnhardt was a trailblazer, without question. He helped usher the sport into the modern era and helped bring it to the height of its popularity in the late 1990s and up to his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Whether you were a fan of his or not, there’s no denying what he meant to the sport. His No. 3 is iconic with NASCAR.
And so it is that it should forever remembered as Dale Earnhardt’s number, and no one else’s afterward.
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