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Me and The 3: Famous Number’s Return Elicits Varied Response

There has been much ado regarding the return of the number 3 to Sprint Cup Series the past few weeks, particularly since Austin Dillon put the black and white Chevy on the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500. From radio shows, to racing forums, Facebook, and Twitter, there’s been much hand-wringing and regret surrounding the move.

I don’t like it….

He was my favorite driver…

It isn’t right to me…

Let me first start by saying, this is not a slight against Earnhardt fans, or in any way diminishing his legacy. 13 years later, I know this decision is still a delicate subject. Having been a fan of the sport for 30 years, I am well aware of the connection between fans and their drivers, the lengths they’ll go to defend their honor. With that said, please, no rocks through my windows with what I’m about to say. You’d have to wade through five feet of snow anyway to get a shot at it, but I digress…

The reasons against a return of the number are understandable – to a degree. Would it have been right to retire the No. 3?

Yes – at the time. However, 13 years after that awful day, and having had it back on the track in the same familiar stylized format since 2009, it’s been slowly worked back into the fabric of two different series, both with the same driver – and his brother. With Austin Dillon having won a both a Nationwide and Truck Series championship, I’d say he has also done the number service thus far. Yes, he isn’t one to get into scrapes with others on the track (unlike say, The Intimidator…). But Dillon has the hardware to back up the responsibility associated with running that number. It isn’t like he’s getting lapped before the first pit stop, or clobbering the wall every other week, or wrecking veterans trying to make a name for himself.

The most polarizing car in the field is on the pole for the Daytona 500. Fans of Dale Earnhardt have been quite vocal in both their support – and opposition – to the number returning to competition in the Sprint Cup Series.
The most polarizing car in the field is on the pole for the Daytona 500. Fans of Dale Earnhardt have been quite vocal in both their support – and opposition – to the number returning to competition in the Sprint Cup Series.

The most polarizing car in the field is on the pole for the Daytona 500. Fans of Dale Earnhardt have been quite vocal in both their support – and opposition – to the number returning to competition in the Sprint Cup Series.

Let’s look at the alternative — retiring the No. 3 instead. If that happens, doesn’t a Pandora’s Box open up? What about other drivers who were the face of the sport at the time, such as Fireball Roberts and No. 22, Davey Allison in No. 28, or Joe Weatherly, who drove the No. 8?

There also is the other half of this number’s legacy, that which belongs to Richard Childress. Dale Earnhardt didn’t win those seven titles on his own, and he’d be the first to remind you of it. Following his sixth championship in 1993, Earnhardt told Childress if he ever started to say “I” won these championships, he better be slapped because it was a team effort. He had essentially the same team during his heyday – Will Lind, David R. Smith, Danny “Chocolate” Myers, and Danny Lawrence (who coincidentally built the engine that put the No. 3 back on point this weekend). Earnhardt went by The Junkyard Dogs and, later when the black Goodwrench scheme covered the car, “The Flying Aces.”

Might they wish to see the car back on the track as well? Richard Childress Racing became the enduring thriving enterprise that it is in part because of that number, and because of those who built it. Having it return to action is salute to their sacrifice and successes as well.

Then, perhaps most importantly are the opinions of those who were closest to the man who brought the number to prominence: Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s business partner, hunting buddy and best friend. It’s the man who Dale Sr. once told if anything ever happened to him, he was to keep racing and not look back – and vice versa.

Remember, it’s not Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who owns the number — or wants it. He ran the number in a few Busch Series and Nationwide races at Daytona, plus a similar black and silver scheme at Talladega in 2006. Earnhardt won in a Wrangler skinned number 3 at Daytona in 2010, a fairy tale moment and has no interest in running the number further.

Why? As he has simply stated, it’s not his. As much as people have held him to the standard set by his father, he has tried to distance himself from it. Early on he wore his hat backward, spoke of his love for video games over hunting and fishing, and favoring alternative and rock music over country.

Even one of the groups he appeared in a music video for – 3 Doors Down – use a similar looking 3 for their band logo. Brooks and Dunn, he’s not.

His sister Kelly who manages his business affairs and JR Motorsports is supportive of it as well. Granted, Dale Earnhardt’s mother is not – which is clearly understandable. Absent from the discussion and from the NASCAR landscape for the past several years is Teresa Earnhardt, who was the driving force in branding The Intimidator image and the familiarity of the 3. She has been silent on the issue and likely wants nothing more to do with the sport; however if she had qualms regarding its release, I assume something would have been said.

I can completely understand why some fans are hurt to see the number return, particularly the first race back being the last place it was tragically ran. Was I a Dale Earnhardt, Sr. fan growing up? Not really; however in 2001 when I was frantically scouring the internet for information as to his condition after the wreck, and reading on a site that he was in “stable” condition, I was relieved. I remember telling my Dad and thinking that everything was going to be okay and we’d hear that he’d be released in the morning. I then flipped on the television as FOX Sports broke in with the terrible news that the unthinkable had happened.

It was as if an uncle had died. Numb at first, then genuinely sad. Did I cry? Oh yeah. Who didn’t that day and those to follow? Was it a terrible reminder the third lap of each race, and genuinely sincere emotion that welled up as Darrell Waltrip led the crowd at Rockingham in prayer prior to the race that following weekend? Absolutely.

Much like a memorial service is viewed as a celebration of life rather than the somber goodbye of a funeral, I am glad to see the No. 3 back on the track. It brings back memories of the Daytona 500 trip in 1992 I took with my Dad, where Earnhardt did the Cole Trickle/_Days of Thunder_ reverse-180 right in front of us while limping back to the pits, after being involved in the big one that wiped out over half the field just past halfway.

I remember watching him dice with Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin in the closing laps at MIS in 1994 and my buddy Ryan whipping me with his hat in 1998 as he charged from the back of the field forward as the race started. It brings back memories in 1990 and 1994 of waiting in line at Berger Chevrolet with 5,000 other people to get an autograph and meet one of the greatest drivers to ever live – who stayed so late they had to get another driver to practice the car at Michigan – so each fan could get a picture and an autograph.

For those that are uneasy or upset over seeing that black No. 3 Chevrolet back on the highbanks of Daytona this Sunday, hopefully it will help conjure up some long lost memories of a happier time, when the racing was a little bit closer, the rules a little bit looser, and when you could walk into work Monday with your chest out and a smile as wide as the mustache that rode beneath those black bubble goggles, because your guy just smoked your friends favorite driver — again.

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