It is both the best of times and worst of times to be a NASCAR driver.
On one hand, the cars are more safe than ever before – witness the wrecks of Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman over the last year or so, to say nothing of Michael McDowell’s harrowing tumble at Texas during qualifying in 2008. 40 years ago at Darlington this weekend, Richard Petty was dangling out of the driver’s side window of his Plymouth, as all the King’s horses and all the King’s men had to put his shoulder back together again.
The obvious risks aside, the pay isn’t bad either. That $264,506 check that Kyle Busch will be cashing from last Saturday night is nearly one-third more than the salary Robert Yates was paying Davey Allison in 1992, the year he almost was killed in two on-track incidents, nearly winning the title in the process.
On the other hand, everybody is in your business and there is this overwhelming feeling that drivers somehow need to gain fan approval before doing anything.
Case in point: Dale Earnhardt Jr. last week unveiled the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet he will be competing with in Daytona on July 4th weekend in the Nationwide Series. His father’s career arguably was defined by Daytona. Having won The Great American Race after two decades of defeat and disaster, it would also be the site of his final race in February 2001.
Prior that, he won the Nationwide Series Daytona race seven times, including five in a row from 1990 through the last year he competed in 1994. His son Earnhardt Jr. also has had plenty of success at Daytona, a track that says is a homecoming of sorts. Dale Jr. finished second that day his father died, and won the very next race there that July. His Daytona 500 win in 2004 stands in stark contrast to the 20 years it took his father to triumph in stock car racing’s marquee event, with his five Nationwide Series wins at Daytona are a compliment as well.
So why then are some fans taking issue and making such a fuss about Earnhardt Jr. running the No. 3 car?
“Some will like it, some won’t like it, I feel like it’s appropriate, feel I think people know I’m pretty careful with that kind of stuff,” Earnhardt said during last week’s unveiling of the blue and yellow throwback paint scheme on the Wrangler Impala. “Shoot man, if we really wanted to wear it out we could’ve run the No. 3 all over the place. This seemed like a reasonable opportunity.”
The opportunity of which he speaks is Dale Earnhardt being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this year.
“If there was a time to ever do it, this is one of the times,” he continued. “At first I was a little uncomfortable about it initially, but the more I kinda see everybody together and the car itself and stuff like that, [the] more excited and the more I’m happy about doing it.”
And well he should be. It isn’t as if he is just trying to score some coin by printing up a bunch of t-shirts and die casts to commemorate the event. What might have slipped some fans’ minds is that this is the same number with which Earnhardt Jr. won two consecutive Busch Grand National championships in 1998 and 1999. The dark blue AC Delco No. 3 was every bit as recognizable and relevant to that series as his father’s black – or in this case, yellow and blue – No. 3 was to the Winston Cup Series.
It is unfortunate that anytime he may do anything involving the No. 3, be it racing it at Daytona as he has on several occasions in years past, or running a black and silver paint scheme as he did at Talladega back in 2006, he needs to worry about who might take issue with it.
During his rookie season of 1997 in the Busch Series, Earnhardt Jr. actually drove a Wrangler-sponsored Chevrolet in the familiar maize and blue hues his father made so famous – albeit in car No. 31, not No. 3. That number would have to wait a year, where he would go on to post seven wins, narrowly beating out Matt Kenseth for the first of two championships.
”I wouldn’t want to do anything to upset anybody the fans or anything like that,” he said. “I feel like I do a good job with staying in the guidelines of respect and taste regarding my father with what he accomplished with his fans. It’s probably uncomfortable for some people that have that kind of connection with him. But being his son it makes me feel good to do makes me feel good to go out there and honor him.”
The fact that he has to add a disclaimer to any of this, considering all that he has done to avoid any insinuation to the contrary, is hard to fathom. It’s almost as if he has to ask permission to do something so simple and heartfelt as honoring his father’s accomplishments and contribution to the sport.
“I really try to be quiet about that kind of stuff, but going into the Hall of Fame… I’m pretty proud of that for him, so you want to bring a lot of awareness to that.”
Hopefully some who are having a hard time with this will become aware that this is simply a son showing some respect for his father, and giving the rest of the racing world something to fondly remember.