by Ryan Isley
One of the top stories heading into the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will be as easy as one, two, THREE. Yes, Three. As in the No.3. The one last driven in the series by the iconic Dale Earnhardt.
It was officially unveiled on Wednesday that Austin Dillon – grandson of Richard Childress Racing owner Richard Childress – would drive the No.3 in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014, his first season in the sport’s highest division.
Dillon was the 2011 Camping World Truck champion and the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, running in the No.3 in both series. The 23-year-old will be taking over the full-time spot in RCR’s Sprint Cup stable that was left open when Kevin Harvick left to join Stewart-Haas Racing starting in 2014.
The timing of everything must have seemed like the perfect storm for Childress to finally bring the No.3 back into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Harvick was the driver who took over for Earnhardt following Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500 and had been with RCR ever since. With him leaving, there weren’t any connections remaining between RCR and Earnhardt. With Dillon already using the No.3 in the two other series, the next logical step for Childress was to re-introduce the number at the highest level.
Add in the marketing and advertising money that stands to be made with the No.3 and all of the extra memorabilia sales that will also come because of it, and the financial side of the decision seems like a no-brainer for not only Childress, but for NASCAR as well.
And while all of that might be true, I still am not in favor of the move.
One of the issues I have with the decision is that the paint schemes for both of Dillon’s cars have a resemblance of the old No.3 from the days of Earnhardt. While the Dow car has a black and white paint job that makes the No.3 integration look natural, the Cheerios car went out of the way to use the old school No.3.
The second issue is that Austin Dillon hasn’t earned that number. While Dillon has won two championships in the last three years at lower levels, he has just 13 starts in the Sprint Cup Series in the last three seasons, with a best finish of 11th at Michigan this past season. He is getting the number because his grandfather runs the team.
There are already drivers who believe that Dillon is entitled and a spoiled brat, and this will do nothing to quell those feelings. If anything, this just might fan the flames a little more.
But the third – and biggest – issue I have with Austin Dillon driving the No.3 is exactly that – it is the No.3.
There are certain numbers in sports that are linked to the greatest in their sports – not only the names, but their nicknames as well. For example: in hockey, No.99 is Wayne Gretzky (The Great One), in football, No.34 is Walter Payton (Sweetness), in baseball, No.3 is Babe Ruth (The Bambino) and basketball of course has No.23 Michael Jordan (Air Jordan).
In NASCAR, there are two that stand above all others: No.43 Richard Petty (The King) and No.3 Dale Earnhardt (The Intimidator). Of course, NASCAR is one of those rare “individual” sports where there are actually numbers assigned. Golf and tennis are also individual sports, but players are known by names, not numbers.
While Earnhardt raced in cars other than the No.3, it was that No.3 which he made famous. It is one of the most – if not the most – recognized cars in the history of the sport. When you see a black No.3 car, it takes approximately 0.0000003 seconds to think of Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt was undoubtedly the most popular driver throughout his career, even as his career was winding down. In fact, it is hard to imagine that he would have raced too many more seasons after 2001. But even then, anything with the No.3 on it would have sold, despite Earnhardt not racing.
Unlike other sports, NASCAR does not retire numbers. Drivers move on to other teams or retire, and that number remains in possession of the race team, who pays for the rights to that number.
While the No.43 has still been used after Petty retired, it was used mostly under the control of the man who made it famous, as he owned the race team which owned the number. With Earnhardt, the number has been owned by Childress, who until now had not brought it back to the track.
If there was ever a time for NASCAR to step in and retire a number, this would be that time.
What makes this a special circumstance is the way in which the number left the sport in 2001. Earnhardt never got the chance to retire. His family didn’t have the opportunity to take the number. The number left the sport in an instant, when Earnhardt hit the wall in the final lap on that fateful day in Daytona.
The number should have been put out of commission at that time, and Childress should have been refunded the retainer money he had to pay for it. Instead, NASCAR kept allowing Childress to pay for the number and keep it in his back pocket until Austin Dillon was ready to make the leap.
Dale Earnhardt is a legend in the sport. And the No.3 is a legendary number because of him. It should have stayed that way.
Photo Courtesy: NASCAR.com