When the NASCAR ranks take to Daytona early next year, it will have been 13 years since the death of one of the sport’s greatest drivers. Dale Earnhardt was the biggest name in NASCAR when he crashed in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Since his death, the number 3 had not been used on a car, but for the 2014 season it will be on the side of a car driven by a rookie.
Austin Dillion is entering his first season of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, at the wheel of the all-new Chevrolet SS NASCAR. He is the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, replacing Kevin Harvick (driving No. 29), who took over the “Intimidator’s” spot after his untimely passing. The number 3 was never officially retired, but Childress withheld from letting anyone make laps with Earnhardt’s number on the side of it– until now.
The move has caused quite a stir in the NASCAR community. Childress says the support from fans has been overwhelmingly positive, but we have to imagine there will be many who scoff (do rednecks scoff?) at the notion of a rookie driving No. 3. In fairness, Childress had driven number 3 before even Earnhardt, and his grandson has had the number while working his way up the ranks in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
The number represents a massive pair of shoes to fill, and if Dillion becomes successful in Sprint Cup cars, it will invite comparisons to the Intimidator. Though Childress technically owns the number, it is surprising that it was never retired, and the move begs the question– when does a number become more than just a number? Why don’t NASCAR teams retire numbers the way other sports teams do? When is the number really owned by the fans and their memories of one of the sport’s greatest drivers? Let us know what you think in the comments below.