2014's biggest stories, #3: The return of NASCAR's legendary #3
It's been 13 years since Dale Earnhardt senior entered turn three at Daytona and lost his life protecting a lead held by cars that bore his name. 13 years have passed since the stylized #3 last took to a Sprint Cup race. Much has changed in the world of stock car racing over those years but one constant remained the same; team owner Richard Childress would not field a Sprint Cup car with the number he once won championships with. Now, with grandson Austin Dillon ready to make his debut in the top tier series, Childress is finally ready to bring the number back. How Dillon does- and how fans react to the sight of his car- should prove to be one NASCAR's biggest stories in 2014.
Earnhardt was not the first driver to race the #3 at NASCAR's highest level. Junior Johnson, one of the biggest names in the history of stock car racing, piloted the #3 to nine wins in 49 races. Drivers ranging from Ricky Rudd to David Pearson to Cale Yarborough spent time behind the wheel of a #3 car. Childress himself has the second most starts with the number, having driven the car for 172 races before turning the keys over to Earnhardt. 30 of the 97 Sprint Cup wins earned under the number came with someone other than the Intimidator behind the wheel. In short, the number has earned its place in NASCAR history long before Earnhardt senior drove it.
Yet numbers have little to do with the place Earnhardt's slanted “3” holds in the hearts of NASCAR fans. He was the working class man who made good, the driver that fans either loved to hate or just plain loved. He talked and acted like the average fan in the stands. He combined the very best aspects of today's drivers all in one package and was the ambassador of a sport on the rise. He drove fans of other drivers crazy with his willingness to do anything it took to win and he did it all behind a pair of mirrors sunglasses that never betrayed the warm personality that those closest too him loved best.
Celebrate Earnhardt Sr with a diecast of his Daytona car
His death left a hole in the fabric of NASCAR that no one has quite been able to fill to this day. Many lost their passion for the sport because there really was no one else quite like Senior. Other drivers just didn't measure up. When Childress decided to continue racing (with Kevin Harvick behind the wheel) the following race, he left the #3 behind. Harvick drove the #29 to 23 wins in 13 years with RCR but he never once designed to enter the #3. During Earnhardt Jr's free agent summer of 2007, some speculated that he might sign on with RCR to drive the car his father made famous. Instead, aside from a spot Nationwide race from time to time, Junior allowed the #3 to say in unofficial retirement.
Two years later, the number quietly returned to NASCAR in a (relatively) unlikely place. Richard's grandson, Austin Dillon, drove a #3 truck twice during the 2009 season and brought it back for the full 25 race season in 2010. At the time, Dillon was just doing what he'd always done. Growing up a fan of Poppop's race team, Austin made a habit of using the #3 around the country on developmental circuits. So despite growing up in the shadow of Earnhardt's death, it's unlikely that Austin recognized just how powerful a force he was touching initially.
But Childress knew. He's often described himself as the world's biggest Earnhardt senior fan. The two were close friends off of the track and six time champions on it. No one understands just what seeing the #3 on a NASCAR track means as well as Childress does. He's a part of the car's history both as a driver and as a team owner. After all, he gave up his own career as a driver (despite never quite being able to win a Winston Cup race) so that Earnhardt could become “The Intimidator”.
It's also that kinship to both the number and the man behind it that makes seeing the 3 return easier to take. While accessible to the media and living life as an Everyman, Earnhardt was still a very private man. He didn't often speak publicly about life after racing. The formation of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated showed that Senior must have spent time thinking about it. Childress, who was his closest friend, says that Senior spoke of wanting to see the #3 live on and win titles without him. If that's true (and there's no reason to think it's not), then the number has already been away far too long.
Since first bringing the #3 back to the track, Dillon has done both himself and the number proud. He won a Camping World Truck series title in his second full season there. He moved up and won a Nationwide title in his second season there as well. Since he began running a full-time NASCAR national series schedule he's won seven races, scored 49 top five finishes and landed inside the top five in season points for his full time series.
Perhaps even more important than the wins and championships, Dillon has proved adept at handling the pressure that comes with running one of NASCAR's iconic numbers. He has endured an ever-increasing media spotlight while maintaining an easy smile and confidant tone. He may not have initially recognized what the #3 meant but he's clearly learned over the past four years. He also shows a deep knowledge of the number's history for his family. He seems to look at the number not as a cross to bear (as Earnhardt Junior seemed to do) but as a dear old friend we hadn't seen in a while.
The desire to see the #3 return to the track is not a universal one. Critics have noted that young Dillon and Earnhardt come from vastly different places. Earnhardt grew up dirt poor, scrapping for every ounce of speed he could get when winning was the difference between feeding his family and going bankrupt. Dillon grew up in a wealthy family who provided top flight racing equipment every step of the way. Earnhardt forced his way into the sport on sheer guts and talent while Austin and younger brother Ty are accused by some of being “silver spoons”. To some fans, the idea that the #3 is coming back to the track while driven by someone like Dillon is sacrilege.
RCR announces Austin Dillon will run the 3
Yet to blame Austin for being born into the Childress family is ludicrous. He cannot control who his parents are any more than the rest of us can. He cannot control that he's been given opportunities that other racers of similar age and talent have not. All he can do is make the most of those opportunities once they are provided. He's done precisely that, all the while showing respect to those who came before and respect for the others on the track. He may not have “earned” the right to drive the #3 in some fans' eyes but neither has he disgraced himself or the number while driving it.
For many fans, seeing the #3 come to the green flag at Daytona will be a moment of healing 13 years in the making. The car that brought them unbridled joy will be on the track once again, running on the high banks that once took that joy away. Some of the toughest men on the planet will be watching that car come up to speed with a tear in their eye and no one will judge them for doing so. The healing that begun with Steve Park, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr in 2001 will come full circle a month from now. If for that moment alone it will be worth it.
And there's no reason to believe that moment will be the end. Dillon has won races against a wide range of competition at nearly ever level. He's already won two NASCAR championships and will have the opportunity (matched only by Greg Biffle) to win a season championship at the Truck, Nationwide and Cup levels. His career is on the rise and his talent is undeniable. If starting a single race can make grown men cry, imagine the reaction should Dillon hoist a Sprint Cup trophy while standing atop a black #3?
Somewhere, a man with a helluva good mustache might be getting the champagne ready.