CONCORD, N.C. — On Dec. 11 at Charlotte Motor Speedway the most anticipated, but well-known announcement about NASCAR racing was made.
The famous No. 3 would be returning to the track in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2014 with Richard Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon driving the No. 3 Chevrolet. The rookie is family and for some time Childress’ organization has been grooming the Dillon boys for a future at the top level driving for the family team.
To their credit both Dillons have achieved the success needed to prove that they belong in the top ranks of the sport. That Austin Dillon would drive a No. 3 car is not surprising.
Unlike other sports NASCAR does not retire car numbers. Numbers are owned by the car owners and they have full choice to pay for a number and not run it, as Richard Childress did with No. 3 and Teresa Earnhardt once did with the No. 8.
Iconic numbers that would have been retired by now in other sports like the 11, 21 and 43 still wheel around the track under the control of today’s new generation of drivers. It is uniquely NASCAR.
When Dale Earnhardt perished on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, many thought that this rule should be amended and that “The Intimidator’s” number should be permanently retired. The sport and the owners remained firm on the process and Wednesday’s announcement showed it was the right decision.
Although there are more than a handful of fans who never wanted to see No. 3 on the side of black Chevrolet with an RCR emblem again, time has allowed for many of the negative feelings toward such a move to simmer down.
To see a No. 3 on track in a Cup Series event on an RCR vehicle is something the sport needs. It connects us to the past hero who drove the car more so than if the number remained retired. By seeing the No. 3 we are reminded of what we loved about those who drove it in the past.
When a number becomes synonymous with a particular person, people become attached to that number as it relates to their heroes in the sporting world. Most anyone could tell you what number adorned the back of Michael Jordan’s NBA jersey most of his career. Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans who had the No. 8 tattooed on their arms could also tell you what it is like in regards to a number change (pandemonium). Fans put too much credence and association with a number.
Those calling for No. 3 to remain retired and those who had a negative reaction to yesterday’s announcement are those that say that is Dale’s number. Dale drove a No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing. No. 3 is Childress’ number.
Dale Earnhardt also drove the No. 8, No. 2 and No. 15 and unknown to most common followers of the sport he did not win Richard Childress’ first race for him in a No. 3 car. That honor belongs to Ricky Rudd.
The No. 3 is ultimately a welcome return. It was more than time for such an event to happen and the whole sport including the Earnhardt family themselves supports Childress’ decision. Although some fans might disagree with ever bringing a number back largely due to their past connection to a hero who made it larger than life, it was time.