It’s getting real now. Fans are getting a glimpse of a car bearing a number that hasn’t been seen in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race since February 18, 2001. The vision stirs a sometimes emotional discussion.
Though Bobby Isaacs, Charlie Glotzbach, Ricky Rudd, and early NASCAR stars Junior Johnson and Buck and Buddy Baker used it as well, for most fans the number three will be forever associated NASCAR immortal Dale Earnhardt. Never mind he once drove with the number 15, the number two, and he used others along the way, when people think of The Intimidator, they think of the black number three Chevrolet with Mr. Goodwrench as the sponsor.
Though yours truly fully supports the usage of the number three by up and comer Austin Dillon, the grandson of Earnhardt’s boss and buddy Richard Childress, he understands the reluctance of fans to accept the development. It signals a moving on, a change, and its the nature of many humans to dislike it.
At the heart of it is honor. Dale Earnhardt is deserving of honor as one of NASCAR’s best ever; in the minds of many, THE best ever. More so than any other who made it to the top, Dale Sr. was the man who rose from humble beginnings in Kannapolis, North Carolina, to NASCAR immortality as a winner of 76 races and seven championships, achieving excellence in a golden age of stock car racing that included the likes of Darrell Waltrip, Bobby and Davey Allison, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Tim Richmond and the latter days of earlier greats like Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough. What he did was more than great racing, he gave people a belief that they too could achieve great things with hard work, skill and a refuse to lose attitude. Racing’s man in black is worthy of honor as the great American success story.
With that said, there are numbers associated with Earnhardt that are more important. Seven- the number of championships he won, putting him alongside The King as the most prodigious titlist ever. 76- the number of races Earnhardt won. Only Petty, Pearson, Gordon, Bobby Allison, and Yarborough have won more than the son of one of the best short track racers ever, Ralph Lee Earnhardt. Five- Earnhardt was one of five member of NASCAR’s first Hall of Fame class.
While retiring a uniform number is not uncommon in stick and ball sports, it has never been done in NASCAR. If we retire the number three, then it can be argued the 43 of Petty, the 21 of Wood Brothers Racing, the numbers 24 and 48 should be retired when Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson hang up their helmets for good.
Fans, to have another driver tooling around the track in a car bearing the number three is not dishonor the memory of the man whose life ended too soon. An immortal’s accomplishments and what they meant can never be taken away, nor their memory erased. Wherever race fans congregate, Ralph Dale Earnhardt will be honored and remembered. A number on a car won’t make him any less great.