It was bound to happen: RCR’s Austin Dillon won a race, and all that talk about the number three resurfaced again. Not all, but many fans consider it sacrilege that a racer not named Earnhardt uses it on his car.
For the uninitiated, the number three was shorn upon the car driven by the iconic Dale Earnhardt during the zenith of his legendary career. It can be well-argued that “The Intimidator” was the greatest to ever race in the NASCAR Cup Series. for roughly a decade, he dominated racing in a glorious era that also featured Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip and Davey and Bobby Allison. It was also the number adorning Earnhardt’s car that tragic day in February of 2001 when he lost his life in a crash at the Daytona 500.
Sixteen years later, fans remember well Earnhardt, his accomplishments, his controversies and the number three, stylized upon a black and white car sponsored by Mr. Goodwrench. By many (but by no means all), the mustachioed North Carolinian represented the quintessential Horatio Alger story. Following in the footsteps of his father, Earnhardt struggled to get his career off the ground, and he came very close to never having the chance to achieve his greatness, as he had worked his way up from humble beginnings with little consistent backing.
Enter Richard Childress. He, like Earnhardt had overcome adversity to rise to NASCAR’s top ranks. While competitive, he never won a race, driving in a car bearing the number three. Until this time, the number was most famously used for a team by NASCAR pioneer legend Junior Johnson. Childress used the number as a bit of a nod to the moonshiner-turned racer-turned race team owner. Fittingly, it was Johnson who played an instrumental role in one of the greatest team-driver pairings of all time. Until then, Earnhardt raced in the number two, and perhaps most notably the number fifteen among others. Earnhardt began racing in the number three largely due to Childress, who had the number himself, before relinquishing it to Earnhardt.
Dale Earnhardt may have popularized it, but that number three belonged to Childress. Fast forward to today, and it is the grandson of Childress- Austin Dillon- who uses it today. While there is some resemblance, it bears very little resemblance to the number three piloted by Earnhardt.
Dillon knows what this number means to fans. He’s endeavored to use the number three with respect. Granted, Dillon hasn’t quite set the world on fire (Sunday’s victory was his first in the Monster Energy Cup Series), he hasn’t been a bust either.
With a few notable exceptions, this fan isn’t real sold on retiring numbers. For those of you that follow other sports, you know retiring numbers has gotten a little out of hand. It won’t be long before players with the New York Yankees and Boston Celtics will be using triple digit numbers. If the practice is employed in NASCAR, if Earnhardt’s number three is retired, what about Richard Petty’s forty-three, Jeff Gordon’s twenty-four, or DW’s eighty-eight, or David Pearson’s number six? Where does it end?
It seems that to this fan, this ought to be a decision left to the teams that own the numbers. In the matter of Dale Earnhardt, few were closer to the enigmatic champion than Richard Childress. If he’s given the number to his grandson, why not? It doesn’t in any way diminish what Dale Earnhardt accomplished, nor does it unfairly elevate a driver who hasn’t yet or may never achieve a legend’s status.