With the recent successes (give or take a couple rules violations) of 22-year old Austin Dillon in the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series, NASCAR fans are getting used to seeing a familiar number back in victory lane. The sport went nearly a decade since any race car bearing the No. 3 rolled into the winner’s circle anywhere. It was Austin Dillon who put the legendary number back in the spotlight with a K&N Pro Series East win at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in April of 2008. Until that event, the No. 3 hadn’t crossed the finish line first since Dale Earnhardt did so in dramatic fashion at Talladega Superspeedway during the fall race in 2000.
Suddenly, the No. 3 is back on NASCAR Nation’s radar. Earnhardt fans still fly flags and carry decals emblazoned with the iconic “3” even though it’s been more than eleven years since “The Intimidator” lost his life on the last lap at the Daytona 500. That particular depiction of the digit has become part of motorsports folklore, recognizable even to people who don’t consider themselves NASCAR fans. From t-shirts and hats, to mud flaps, tattoos, and earrings, the slightly-slanted, stylized, white No. 3 is a reminder of the sport’s epic past — and a nod to its promising future.
That’s not to say that other numbers don’t instill fond memories of heroes and heroics. The No. 11 has enjoyed a rich history, as has the No. 28. Seeing a car carrying the No. 21 means you’re looking at a Wood Brothers entry, just like seeing a car with the No. 43 forever connects it to Richard Petty (by the way, happy belated 75th, your majesty!). Car numbers, like the numerals worn by athletes in other sports, are a quick-and easy way to identify and remember the individual regardless of their place and time. When a ball player switches teams, his number often accompanies him on the trip to a new locker.
The difference with NASCAR is that a car’s number is owned by NASCAR, and granted use to a team owner. Only if said number is officially swapped, released, or spoken for, can it be used in competition. An example of this I know from personal experience is in regard to the No. 11, which went from being the property of Junior Johnson to being the property of Brett Bodine when Bodine bought Johnson’s race team in 1995. When Brett Bodine Racing ceased operations in 2003, the No. 11 was acquired by Joe Gibbs for his brand-new pairing of Denny Hamlin and Federal Express. The No. 11 has been on the FedEx Sprint Cup cars ever since.
Car numbers have great significance, being a visible symbol of either success or failure, so seeing Austin Dillon turning laps in cars carrying the legendary No. 3 conjures up all kinds of reactions. To some, it’s refreshing to see the famous old number in familiar territory.
To others, it’s a sacrilege bordering on blasphemy.
To former NASCAR driver and long-time car owner Richard Childress, the No. 3 is something else entirely. As quoted last week in a piece by Jim Utter, of the Charlotte Observer, Childress explained publicly that he sees, “the No. 3 as family. I drove it, I was fortunate…. It’s special because you have so many fans who want to see the No. 3….”
But then, as one might imagine, “…. you have some who question running the No. 3.” To these diehard fans, all of their memories of the late Dale Earnhardt and his many accomplishments are too precious to forsake.
It puts Childress in a rather tight spot. As he said himself, after his grandson’s first NNS win two Saturdays ago: “I wouldn’t let anyone else other than an Earnhardt or a Dillon drive the No. 3 in Trucks…. no one will drive the No. 3 in Trucks again unless it’s one of their [grandsons Austin’s and Ty’s] kids or an Earnhardt.”
When asked about the possibility that the No. 3 would be seen again on the sheet metal of a Sprint Cup car, Childress sounded a bit less certain. Apparently, his decisions are all driven by matters of style.
“Dale Earnhardt made that stylized No. 3 famous”, Childress told reporters that Saturday, “and we don’t have any intentions of running that stylized No. 3 in Cup…. We don’t have any intentions, but that always leaves an opening. Right now, we don’t have any intentions of running that stylized No. 3 in Cup.”
The focus of my essay here has less to do with the particulars of number selection and whether or not it’s appropriate for Richard Childress Racing to run the famed No. 3 again in Cup competition. What’s interesting to me is the way that Richard Childress separates the No. 3 he ran with Dale Earnhardt from any old No. 3 that might be pasted on the doors of his grandson Austin’s future Cup ride. To people like Childress – and the legions of faithful Earnhardt fans – it’s the unique style of the Wrangler and GM Goodwrench No. 3 that renders the numeral safe for NASCAR history.
To me, the number three on a stock car harkens back to the mid-to-late 1970s, when Richard Childress drove the Kansas Jack and/or CRC Chemicals No. 3 Chevrolets in Winston Cup competition. When driving for owner Tom Garn, Childress’s cars carried the numbers 95 and 96 (and occasionally the number 88); starting with the 1976 Winston Cup season, Childress acquired the number three.
It’s been that way ever since.
Childress supposedly selected the number three in honor of Junior Johnson, who ran that number when he drove for Ray Fox during the 1960s. Such is the defining power of a numeral; the number takes on meaning in-and-of-itself and becomes an entity in its own right.
Many drivers, their car owners, their primary sponsors, and even their records can be identified by the numbers they carried at any given point during their careers. Richard Petty won his 200th-career Cup race at Daytona in 1984 driving the No. 43 STP Pontiac – all this information gels neatly thanks to the catalyst that Petty’s car number provides. You may not know the name, but your recall is aided by seeing the number associated with the individual. Car numbers are part of motorsports tradition, and this helps us deal with the ever-changing nature of the business.
Traditions are often difficult to change since such customs become so ingrained in our habits and behaviors. Even seasoned veterans working within the business can become momentarily confused when a driver jumps from a recognized number to a new one. When Bill Elliott made the move from the No. 9 to Junior Johnson’s No. 11, many fans found themselves unable to readily grasp the switch (not to mention “Awesome Bill’s” sponsorship shift from Coors to Budweiser – an added point of confusion). Hence the attention being paid to Richard Childress’s recent comment regarding the future of the number three in Sprint Cup competition.
Civilization is all about the number three. The number provides us with a simple means by which to categorize all sorts of information. Consider the assortment of subjects and/or topics we divide into some form of the number three: there’s the “Three ‘R’s’” of education (reading, writing, and arithmetic), the way we divide a day (morning, noon, and night), and the way we divide our understanding of life itself (we all have a past, a present, and a future).
A classification of three is used to designate the Holy Trinity, and ranges of three are even utilized to separate the three “original” Star Wars films from the three “prequel” titles. Iroquois tribes of the Northeast revered the “Three Sisters” – a trio of spirits that protected the tribes’ annual yield of corn, squash, and beans, three crops deemed necessary for survival. Olympic excellence is denoted by the awarding of three possible medals: the gold, the silver, and the bronze. Horse races are categorized by a finishing order of win, place, and show, and hitting the trifecta means a greater payday than simply betting on the daily double.
Not that the number two isn’t relevant in this conversation. Dale Earnhardt drove the No. 2 entry back during his tenure with Rod Osterlund, those early days when Earnhardt began building his fame by following-up his Rookie of The Year title in 1979 with the 1980 Winston Cup championship. The numeral two carries different significance in that the number usually denotes more objectivity. When facing a 50/50 shot at some action, your options are reduced to rather simplistic choices; such decisions take an either/or, good/bad, yes/no kind of approach.
Maybe the number two was ideal for Earnhardt during those early Cup seasons, the era when fans found themselves being either for or against “The Intimidator”. In those days, Dale Earnhardt seemed to be regarded in either positive or negative terms, all according to how the individual felt about the man and his actions. That all changed when Earnhardt switched to Richard Childress Racing and the No. 3….
The number three requires a more subjective choice in that there is no longer a 50/50 option; the numeral three requires you to make a more conscious decision based on the three perspectives offered for consideration (is something truly good, truly bad, or somewhere in between?). As Dale Earnhardt gained experience as a driver and businessman, we were forced to make similar decisions; was Earnhardt a talented driver, a reckless threat to safety, or did he make choices best suited to what he needed at any given time?
The number three requires a commitment.
And perhaps that’s what Richard Childress’ comment about the “stylistic” number three on a Cup car really meant. The numeral three we saw on Earnhardt’s cars all those years was more of a brand or logo than a number registered with NASCAR. A huge part of Dale Earnhardt’s legacy was his connection to the stylistic number three that’s once again in the news. To put that particular form of the number on a Cup car – regardless of who sat behind the wheel – would be tampering with the “brand” that is the late Dale Earnhardt. It’d be akin to using the Nike “swoosh” to market New Balance athletic shoes…. a historic symbol that represents so much to so many cannot be arbitrarily swapped across similar products.
If Childress tries to puts the stylized “3” on a car driven by one of his grandsons, or even by one of Dale Earnhardt’s kin, he’ll likely wind up doing more harm than good. Some traditions are meant to resist change, no matter how well-meaning the reasoning might be. Dale Earnhardt is still a viable force in sports marketing and sales, even eleven years after his tragic death – it’s important to recognize that the stylized number three is still a viable and important force, too.