He’s been gone almost nine years to the day, but his memory is still as alive as when he was haulin’ the mail to seven Cup titles. The emotions- pro and con- regarding Ralph Dale Earnhardt are just as fresh today, as they were when he walked among us.
Wisely, Richard Childress- the owner of Earnhardt’s ride- pulled the number from the car immediately following the driver’s death at the 2001 Daytona 500. When young Kevin Harvick climbed into the cockpit next week, he did so in a car bearing the #29. They also reversed the paint scheme, so Harvick was driving a predominantly white car. It was a wise gesture of respect, and it quickly put from people’s minds any comparisons between anyone in that car and the memory of a giant among greats.
For his part, Harvick thinks no car bearing the number three should ever take a Cup track again. Earnhardt’s son has also wisely cast aside any notion of driving it himself. Considering how the last few seasons have gone, it would have been one more monkey on the back of NASCAR’s favorite son.
Now that the grandson of Richard Childress, Austin Dillon, is making his way into the Camping World Truck Series with that famous number on his ride, the discussion has resurfaced. No number in NASCAR has ever been retired; should that step be taken now?
It’s a somewhat complicated issue with passions running high as to “yea” or “nay.” The retiring of uniform numbers is somewhat routine in other sports- legendary franchises such as the New York Yankees and the Boston Celtics have put several numbers to rest. Why not do it in NASCAR? Who makes that decision?
Well, for right now, Richard Childress holds the cards. Ultimately, NASCAR has authority, and so far, there’s no directive or policy on it. For my part, as a fan, and as an observer, I am confident in the ability of Childress to play the cards wisely.
If he had profiteering in mind, the number would have gone back into circulation a long time ago. It hasn’t, and I give Childress props for that. He actually drove with that number on his car before Earnhardt was hired to pilot it. The team owner may well have known Earnhardt was well as any other human being. They shared common upbringings, a love of the outdoors, and Childress always knew he could count on hearing from his buddy just about any night he was outside kicking back with a glass of wine. Kindred spirits like this are not the kind to cheapen a memory.
Unfortunately, the Intimidator is not here to cast his vote, and a part of me thinks he’d be embarrassed by all the fuss. But if anyone had an inkling, Childress knows.
Speaking for myself, I don’t think we need to retire the number. Unlike other sports, where EACH team has their universe of numbers to work with, NASCAR only has one #1, only one #2, and so on down the line. If we retire the “3”, then should we retire the “15” and the “2” as well? Dale, Sr. also used those numbers, and heck, I’d make an argument that yellow and blue Wrangler ride with the #15 on it was no less a defining car. Where would it stop? If we retire the “3,” then we HAVE to retire the “43.” Then what do we do to honor Pearson, Yarborough, D.W., Bobby Allison and the other immortals? All of them drove multiple numbers.
I’ll tell you what I think: Childress knows it isn’t time yet, to bring the “3” back into Cup racing. NASCAR has stayed mum on the matter, signaling to this observer they know better than to pronounce some “use it or lose it” dictum. There will be a team, there will be a place, where it becomes appropriate to bring the “3” back. I’d say give it to an Earnhardt or a Childress, but it has to be under the right circumstances. I don’t pretend to know what those are today.
For me, it’s more than the number. It was the black Chevrolet. It was “Goodwrench” emblazoned on the hood. And most important of all, it was that man with the open faced helmet, the sandy mustache and that steely eyed gaze that made the package complete.
Dale Earnhardt was an American original, a one of a kind. The “3” in and of itself is just a number, and not even a fool would pretend that taking the number makes them Dale Earnhardt. There will be a time, and it’s not here yet.
PHOTO CREDITS- Dale Earnhardt statue by byc.marsh. To see more, visit flickr.com.