Retire The “3”? A Good Question

by Jim on February 4, 2010 · 9 comments

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

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1 tom1194 February 6, 2010 at 4:58 am

I thought RC’s grandson was going to use the 3 if he came up throught the ranks.
Personally, I never cared for his driving tactics or that nascar was so DE and Chevy during his career. France was one of his biggest fans and we have all seen what a france can do to manipulate a season more recently. Don’t get me wrong, Dale could drive the wheels off a car but to retire the number, nah.

2 Richard Petersen February 6, 2010 at 7:43 am

The #3 has been part of the Earnhardt family for a very long time. Dale Earnhardt drove that number to 6 of his 7 Winston Cup Championships. When it came time to put Dale Jr in a car, Dale Earnhardt put him in the car he owned from DEI…with the #3 on the car. Remember, Dale himself did this. He did not choose the #8 or #15, he chose the #3. Which Dale Jr did win 2 Busch Series Championships with that very number. You might have thought there was a reason why. My hypotheses is that he did so because if Dale Sr. had retired in, oh I’d say 2006 or something, he would put his son on the car to finish what was started. That is what i believe. In 2002, a year after Dale’s death at Daytona, Dale Jr took that very number, #3, to Daytona in the Bush Series. The car was owned by both Richard Childress and Teresa Earnhardt. For thoughs who do not remember, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won that race. See, I think Dale Earnhardt would not mind if his own son took the wheel of his car. I mean it is HIS son driving it right? not Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, or Kyle Busch, its his son.

3 Ginger February 6, 2010 at 7:57 am

Retiring the #3 is different than the #s of Yarborough, Pearson, DW, etc. Dale died on the track with that #3. That’s the difference. That number should be retired out of respect for the 7-time champion. But it’s still Richard’s decision, and I believe he will make the right decision.

4 Doug February 6, 2010 at 8:18 am

Since Fireball Roberts crash at Charlotte til today something like 90 drivers that have raced at least one race in the big series have died in accidents. As example Richie Evans in modified or Adam Petty in Nationwide. None of their numbers got retired? And I don’t think Dale Sr. would want it retired? Its less of a tribute if you ask me.

5 dawg February 6, 2010 at 8:31 am

Each & every fan should cherish their memories of favorite drivers.
As for retiring numbers, that great drivers had on their cars. If they had started from day one, we’d be well into Bomber Class numbers now. Somehow 235 just doesn’t do it for me.
That having been said, if in the future NASCAR were to award the # 3, & 43 to some other teams.
It would take big cojones to crawl in either car.

I loved Alan as much as current fans love Jr., but it doesn’t bother me to have seen Geoffery, Jimmy, & now Robby running the #7. Doesn’t change my memories in the least.
Now if they were retiring numbers. I’d offended if the 7 wasn’t retired. That would lead to the well travled “Slippery Slope.” Best to leave well enough alone.

6 Jim Allan February 6, 2010 at 9:10 am

I’ve read many opinions and we are all entitled to one, however in this instance the fact that the most popular and in many ways controversial driver ever, who had more impact on the growth and popularity of NASCAR then any other single person, coupled with the fact that he died in the #3 car, which he will be remembered for, not RCR, still makes me vote retire the #3. The argument that #43 should be retired also is moot as Richard Petty did not die in the #43. Yes Dale did drive other numbers but it was the #3 that he made famous and that made him famous. Had he retired at the end of a long career the number most likely would have been passed on as the #43 was, however that is not the case here. Many others have indeed died on the track but none in recent memory were on his level, not to diminish any tragic on track loss of anyone. Richard Childress has many other numbers to pick from, this is one time a number should be retired, in CUP compition.

7 The Mad Man February 6, 2010 at 11:57 am

One of the better loved and controversial drivers drove the #3 long before Dale Sr hit that track and that was Junior Johnson. Some folks seem to forget that. The #3 was famous long ago.

If we retired a number because a much beloved driver died while driving that car number, we’d be out of numbers. The #8 would’ve been retired in 1964 after the death of Joe Weatherly. The #22 would also have been retired in 1964 after the death of Fireball Roberts. The #1 would’ve been retired after the death of Billy Wade in 1965. Or retiring the #26 because that’s what Tiny Lund was driving when he died. While I can appreciate folks wanting to retire the number, there’s also a lot of history attached to the #3 which didn’t involve Dale Sr.

As to Dale Jr, he said that he’d drive the #3 but it would only be when he was ready to retire. So before you go retiring that number, you might want to wait a few years to get an Earnhardt back behind that number first. Then when Jr retires, bring up the retirment talk again.

8 Williiam February 6, 2010 at 6:13 pm

You can not retire the 3 though i lost alot of me that day when he died. If there was a number to retire. I is the 7 Alan kuwiki is the only cup champ that died the year he as defending. Dale will always be my hero.

9 Lundy February 6, 2010 at 8:25 pm

I would love to see the #3 come back with Dale jr driving a RCR car and they both need to be on top when this happens,if neither one can get their act together then let the #3 rest in peace

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