Monday, February 19, 2018

The No. 3 Returns to Victory Lane to Revitalize NASCAR Nation

No. 3 Chevrolet Burnout at Daytona 500
Austin Dillon Burns it Down After Winning the Daytona 500
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 The No. 3 Won the Daytona 500!  

 Did you notice something about that statement? It's missing a driver's name.  And yet it isn't. While Austin Dillon was the driver behind the wheel when the checkered flag flew on Sunday, it is actually a legend that is still driving the sport 17 years after he died. That is why we now know that NASCAR made the right decision in refusing to retire that mythical No. 3.

When Dale Earnhardt Sr. lost his life in the 2001 Daytona 500, he enjoyed the support of a legion of wildly loyal and vocal fans. In fact, NASCAR Nation was pretty well split down the middle as Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt went toe to toe week after week in an effort to prove just who had the bigger--um-- following.  

After the tragic accident, the sport swayed in shock, but we carried on. We mourned. NASCAR dusted off their focus on safety.  New tracks joined the circuit. New faces were welcomed into the garage.  But the roar of the Goodwrench No. 3 remained a palpable presence in the lingo of our sport.

After a year there was discussion over whether the car number should ever run again--after all, there would surely never be another Dale Sr.  But NASCAR stuck by their stance that they don't retire numbers, and both the Childress and Earnhardt families agreed that retiring the number wouldn't actually do any good.  

 Still, the No. 3 remained under wraps for a while longer.  Those loyal Senior fans remained true, but as time passed the loss of the Intimidator lost its brutal sting. We as fans moved on.

The Return of the No. 3 in 2009 Credit: Mark Odor/
Finally, in 2009 Austin Dillon, the grandson of Richard Childress, brought the Black No. 3 back to life when he made his debut in the Camping World Truck Series.  Do you remember how those loyal to the memory of Dale Sr. made some noise? Nobody could drive the No. 3. Never. Why?

Once again, the tales of the Intimidator were brought back to life. NASCAR enjoyed a sense of nostalgia amidst the protests as that No. 3 truck rolled into the track in Iowa.  And so the conversation moved forward, teaching the next generation of racing fans about a driver who pushed the boundaries of right, wrong, champion, and villain all at once.

The No. 3 had become more than a number painted on a wall, or hung on a banner in the Hall of Fame. It now represented the blue collar roots of auto racing. The No. 3 continued to take laps on tracks across America, and in doing so kept Dale Sr.'s entire story fresh in our minds.

So, when Austin Dillon took his No. 3 Chevrolet and executed a bump and run on the No. 10 of Aric Almirola on Sunday afternoon only one thing came to my mind.

That is the NASCAR that racing fans came to celebrate all through the 80's and 90's when Senior and the California Kid created a phenomenon worthy of prime time television. Now, with the No. 3 sitting in Daytona USA for another year, not only will new NASCAR fans get to make some noise about how wrecking ain't racing, but their aging parents and grandparents have a chance to relive all the moments that created Sunday afternoon magic for them over the years.

The story isn't about the drivers this year.  It's about how after all the tweaks and changes to our sport, the Daytona 500 still comes down to who has the biggest bumper and the guts to use it on the last corner of the last lap.  Just as Dale Earnhardt Sr. taught us all those years ago.

The No. 3 could never be retired.  It's not done telling the story of NASCAR in America, yet.  

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