It will be 13 years since the #3 car has competed in a Sprint Cup Race… February 18, 2001. NASCAR lost one of its greatest drivers during the last lap of the Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt, who won six of his seven Cup Championships driving for Richard Childress Racing, is forever immortalized with that iconic slanted 3.
For twelve years, the revered 3 car remained parked. No driver could fill the shoes or take on the legacy left by Earnhardt. Not even Dale Jr. who drove the 3 Wrangler car once in a Nationwide Race in Daytona, but vowed never again.
NASCAR fans keenly felt Dale Sr.’s absence on the track. The absence of the black Goodwrench 3 car somehow represented an appropriate expression of grief and respect. No one could or would replace The Intimidator.
Flash forward 13 years. Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon has raced the 3 truck and car, winning championships in both the Camping World Truck Series and the Natiowide Series. It was just a matter of time before Dillon would progress to Sprint Cup competition… would the 3 car follow?
Would think this had to be one of the hardest decisions ever faced by Richard Childress. He most of all knew the legacy and sentiment attached to the 3. Close friends with Dale Sr., Childress understood fans’ connection to that car and the desire expressed by many that the number should be retired from Spring Cup Racing. Retire a car number—never occurred before. But… has there been a driver of Dale Sr.’s stature so identified with the car he drove and died racing?
On the other hand, Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon proved he was ready to jump to the next level and very much wanted to drive the legendary 3 car. After speaking with Dale Jr. and Kelly Earnhardt—who gave their blessings—Childress announced this week the return of the 3, the paint schemes eerily familiar, though the sponsors different. Come February 2014, Austin Dillon will attempt to continue the legacy Dale Sr. left in that car.
Don’t think for a moment that Dillon underestimates the power and emotional pull of the 3 car. Grandfather Richard reportedly asked him the week if he was sure he wanted to accept that pressure. Austin’s got the swagger and cockiness of a young Earnhardt. But he showed none of this when he assured Childress he wanted to be the one to bring the 3 car back into competition.
Dale Jr. seconded the decision, according to USA Today: “I’m in favor of it,” he said. “I’m real comfortable with it. I look forward to seeing it out on the racetrack. It’ll definitely stir up some emotions that I’m probably not aware of right now, but I’m expecting it to have a positive influence on the sport and the fans and Austin as well. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. I would be worried if I didn’t think he’d respect it or not understand the legacy, but he does. I know he does. He appreciates it.”
The return to racing in February promises many shakeups in the NASCAR world, with numerous drivers changing teams. But nothing will stir more controversy and conversations than seeing #3 roll out on the track at Daytona.
Personally, this just doesn’t feel right. Why are no numbers retired? NASCAR fans can recite a handful of drivers whose impact on the sport was so great that their cars’ number should/will forever represent that driver. This was the moment, the most appropriate tribute NASCAR could render Dale Earnhardt, Sr. For no matter whose behind the wheel if the #3 car, the crowd will think of Earnhardt—a legend no one will ever replace. Maybe will feel differently watching at Daytona, but for one, wish the #3 car remained parked forever in tribute to The Intimdator.
- Dillon to drive Dale Sr.’s No. 3 in Sprint Cup (espn.go.com)
- 3 returns: Austin Dillon to drive car with Dale Earnhardt number (sportingnews.com)
- Austin Dillon to bring No. 3 to Sprint Cup Series (bnd.com)
- No. 3 car resurrected for Sprint Cup (timesleader.com)