Opinion: An Emotional Return

Earnhardt No. 3

Austin Dillon will drive the No. 3 car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this coming season, the first time that car number has competed in a Cup race since Dale Earnhardt’s death. (Photo: Getty Images)

CONCORD, N.C. - The pain and sadness will come.  For many who saw Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash 12 years ago, the wounds will return along with memories of tributes, tears and raising three fingers.

The emotions might have struck some Wednesday.  That’s when Richard Childress announced that grandson Austin Dillon will drive the No. 3 car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this coming season - the first time that car number has competed in a Cup race since Earnhardt’s death.

More than likely, the emotions will strike later.  It could be when the No. 3 returns to Daytona International Speedway.  Maybe it will be at Talladega Superspeedway, where Earnhardt enjoyed so much success.  Or it will come elsewhere.  Whenever it happens, there likely will be a chill, a shudder and a memory of what was lost.

Each memory will be different.  Some will be about candlelight vigils, homemade shrines or the angst of so many people that a nation took notice.  TV networks reported Earnhardt’s death.  Time Magazine put him on its cover.

The bond between Earnhardt and fans was strong because he was relatable.  He was wealthy, but his simple upbringing gave him a bedrock foundation that made it seem as if he could have been a co-worker, neighbor or friend.  That’s what made his death so painful, even now for some.

It’s why, even with the No. 3 running in the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series, the sight of it in Cup in 2014 will be striking.

"It will definitely stir up some emotions that I’m probably not aware of right now," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

Even so, he adds, "I look forward to seeing it out on the racetrack."

Maybe it’s time for the No. 3 to return and provide different memories - to give fans images of the car making passes, battling for position or ... someday ... winning races.

Childress admits it took him time to get used to seeing the No. 3 back on the track.  He’s adjusted.  He said that he and Earnhardt talked about the future of the No. 3 car beyond Earnhardt driving it.  Childress said Earnhardt "wanted to see the '3' car racing for wins in the Cup Series.  He wanted to see the '3' car racing for championships.

"I know today that Dale is smiling down and is proud of this announcement," Childress said.

To some, the No. 3 will represent Earnhardt even though he collected one of his record-tying seven championships driving the No. 2 car in 1980.  Some fans worry that no driver can do the number justice.  Maybe so.  But until NASCAR retires numbers, this quandary remains.

Fireball Roberts, who'll be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame next month as part of the Class of 2014, drove the No. 22 most of his career before dying from burns suffered in a crash at Charlotte in 1964.  Roberts, considered the sport’s first superstar, scored 30 of his 33 career wins in the No. 22.  He was in that car when Ned Jarrett pulled him out of the flames at Charlotte.

That number today?  Joey Logano runs it for Penske Racing.

Does Logano running that number diminish what Roberts did?

No.

Will Dillon diminish what Earnhardt did in the No. 3 car?

No.

Will Dillon match what Earnhardt did?  It’s doubtful, considering no one has since matched Earnhardt’s seven titles.  Earnhardt tied Petty’s total and Jimmie Johnson is one behind both.  Even if Johnson surpasses both, there likely will come a day when someone else drives the No. 48 car in NASCAR’s top series.  That’s fine.

For as much as we hate it, as much as we fight it, time moves on.  One generation ages, another emerges.  That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to accept change.

The No. 3 was raced by Childress before Earnhardt.  Before then, the No. 3 was piloted by Hall of Famers Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Cotton Owens, Buck Baker and Roberts.  It’s OK for Dillon to drive the number and yes, there will come a day when some fans may view that as Dillon’s number, not Earnhardt’s number.  That’s OK.

Isn’t the number big enough to share?

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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The No. 3 Returns

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