Numbers come, numbers go and drivers change numbers all the time in NASCAR. And for 13 seasons that has been true for every number from 00-99 in the garage area. That is except for one magic number.
Like it or not, the number 3 is coming back to the Sprint Cup Series. Richard Childress Racing announced on Wednesday that his grandson would drive the number 3 in the Cup Series beginning with the 2014 Daytona 500.
"It's what you dream of when you start racing, is to make it to the Cup Series one day," Dillon said during the announcement which was held during 2014 testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Just proud to be here.”
We all knew it was coming, from the day Childress put young Dillon behind the wheel of that black number 3 in the truck series and then the Nationwide series, this day was on the radar. Many people may have been surprised that Dillon advanced so quickly through the lower series, earning titles in each over a three year span. Others might have been hoping that when Dillon got to the cup series, Childress might opt to put him in the 33, another number he has run in the past.
"We held the number (3), I've been paying NASCAR for it throughout the years and Bill (France) Jr. told me 'You know, if we're ever challenged, we'll have to let someone have that 3,' " Childress said. "But we weren't, and I knew that the right opportunity would come. It would have to be an Earnhardt or one of the Childress family that we would put behind that."
I still remember the day almost 13 years ago. It was the first NASCAR race I watched from beginning to end. I remember finding out from a friend that worked for a regional sports network hours before the official announcement was made that Dale Earnhardt, Sr. had been killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
I wouldn’t call myself a fan then, not by a long shot. I couldn’t at the time understand the reaction from the NASCAR community. And I still probably don’t completely understand it. But I am sympathetic to it.
And that is the issue I have with this announcement.
First of all don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problem with Dillon running the number 3. It’s just a number and the kid has certainly earned the opportunity he is getting in a cup car.
But here is the problem I have. With each year that has gone by since Earnhardt died, that legend has continued to grow. Every Daytona that comes and goes, Dale Senior becomes closer and closer to a NASCAR god.
"My hope is that Dale Earnhardt fans will be re-energized and say 'Hey, it gives me something to look at,' " Childress said. "We know we aren't going to please everyone. We know that. We are going to do our best to make them proud and I know Austin will. I think the new fans will learn a lot about the great Dale Earnhardt by watching this."
I think it would have been a better idea to easy fans back into the idea of the 3’s return. Since it seemed to always be the plan to put Dillon in the 3, he could have run it during the few raced he ran last season. It would have avoided making the very place that took Earnhardt’s live the location of its return. RCR also might have wanted to consider easing back into the idea of having the black 3 on the track at all.
At the end of the day it’s just a number. And once NASCAR pulls out of Daytona it will become less and less of a story. The pressure will be on young Dillon to perform up to the standards of being a cup driver, of being an RCR driver and of all the big names from Cotton Owens to Buck Baker to Ricky Rudd, who also drove the 3 before him.
"My grandfather has done a great job of teaching me how to handle certain responses to things, and I think we're going to go forward with it," Dillon said. "I've heard a lot of good feedback from the fans, and every time I'm at an autograph session I've had someone ask what's going to happen. They are excited and we are, too, at RCR.
"It's what our sport was built on -- family and history -- and a great opportunity for all of our sport to see this No. 3 back on the track."