This weekend marks the event that many longtime Dale Earnhardt fans have longed for – Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbing behind the wheel of the No. 3 Chevrolet that the Intimidator drove to six Winston Cup championships and 67 wins for Richard Childress Racing, and in the process created a legend that has lived on for nearly a decade after his untimely passing.
“I just want to go to the racetrack and run it once before I retire, and this will probably be it,” he said. “After this, I’ll probably never drive a car with a 3 on it again. I can pretty much say I’m 99% sure that will never happen again.”
That stark revelation must have punched a lot of Junior nation right in the solar plexus; after all, many had hoped that Junior would carry on his father’s legacy later on in his career, something Earnhardt Jr. had eluded to a number of times over the years, particularly when he was driving the No. 8 car.
Back then, everybody wanted to know why he wouldn’t want to drive the No. 3, it having been not used by Richard Childress since that fateful February day of 2001. Many ignored the fact that No. 8 was Earnhardt’s father Ralph (they’re all named Ralph, actually) Earnhardt’s number, and at the time Junior was trying to get out from his father’s shadow a bit and create his own identity. The No. 8 was in the same stylized script as the No. 3, however many in the Junior and Earnhardt nation wanted more
In the Nationwide Series races at Daytona and Charlotte in 2002, Earnhardt Jr. competed in the No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing, winning the Daytona event, and was greeted enthusiastically by his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt in a scene that warmed the cockles of even the most jaded race fan’s heart.
In 2006 at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. took to the track in a black and silver Budweiser Dark No. 8 machine whose paint scheme was a dead ringer for his dad’s car, much to the delight of the Alabama faithful who cheered their mustached maverick on to 10 wins at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
That event helped create quite a buzz which only escalated a year later when it became known that the company that was built in part for him by his father, had little interest in extending that relationship any further than a driver – might Junior move to RCR and compete in his father’s number?
Instead, Dale Jr., went to Hendrick Motorsports, a relationship that started off strong with a win in the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona in February of 2008, but has since been a two tumultuous years of frustration. One win in two and a half years has been extremely hard on both driver, team and family; Earnhardt Jr.’s cousin Tony Eury Jr. – who is more like a brother to him – was removed as crew chief halfway through the 2009 season, and it has taken nearly a year for the driver and new crew chief Lance McGrew to get their feet under themselves. Some would argue that they still aren’t there, and again the rumors persist – maybe Junior will begin looking elsewhere?
One of the more logical locations for him to land should he decide to explore his options was always Richard Childress Racing. They have room for one more at the table, and Richard Childress has said that if Earnhardt Jr. wanted to run the No. 3 it was his to use. This week however, in an interview with ESPN’s Marty Smith, Junior made it clear that was not something that would be considered in the future – near or distant.
“It’s not my number to take and use whenever I feel like using it,” said Dale Jr. “You just don’t grab the car keys off the counter and go run out the door and haul down the road with your dad’s car. I didn’t do it when he was alive and I won’t do it now.
“I’m borrowing it once, and then maybe sometime down the road some kid will come up, and he’ll have a connection to the 3 – whether it’s through my father or whether it’s what his number’s been since he was playing teeball. Whatever, you know, that will be his. It will be someone else’s.”
On Monday, Jeff Striegel of MRN was on my local sports talk radio show, Bakita & Gray, and made mention that he heard that Junior may not drive the No. 3 at all this weekend at Daytona. I’m not sure where he got that little nugget of info; after all, they just had a big press conference about it heralding the return of the Wrangler colors and the No. 3 to the track – one attended by Earnhardt Jr., his brother Kerry and his sisters Kelly and Taylor. That, coupled with the number of t-shirts and diecast cars that are already in circulation, I wouldn’t put much credence in that rumor.
That and the fact that he just did an interview wearing a No. 3 Wrangler hat saying that he was driving it Friday night for the last time.
What is a bit puzzling about Earnhardt Jr.’s comments is, this actually is his number too. For those that only started following NASCAR since the advent of the Chase, not racing back to the yellow (or racing back to the yellow, depending on what race it might be), wave-arounds, gaudy wings or double-file restarts – shootout style – you may not know that from 1998 to 1999 Dale Jr. won two consecutive Nationwide Series championships driving the No. 3 AC Delco Chevrolet for DEI, winning 13 races in the process. Before that, in his rookie season of 1997, he actually ran the Wrangler colors twice – albeit in the No. 31.
While the car Junior will be driving Friday night is painted up like his father’s Wrangler cup machine from 1981, Earnhardt’s number then wasn’t 3 the entire season – it was No. 2. Earnhardt started the year driving for Rod Osterlund with whom he won his first championship the year before, and then for JD Stacy – the Boss Hogg of car owners – later in the season. The following year, Earnhardt drove for car owner Bud Moore, driving in Wrangler colors but at the wheel of his No. 15 – gulp – Ford.
In the end, it’s a little sad that Earnhardt Jr. is having to approach this tribute to his father the way he has. It is almost as if he has had to seek approval or permission from others who may have never even met his father – let alone be his son.
Then again, running that number brings with it a number of expectations and increased pressure to perform – something that is inherent with his name alone, multiplied even further by the struggles he has experienced since winning six Sprint Cup races in 2004 and contending for a title he may have won had he not been burned during a crash in practice for an American LeMans Series race at Infineon that late summer.
That alone may be reason enough for his decision to run this number, one last time. Taking it off the table might be good for him, simply so he doesn’t have to suffer the same questions over and over again, ones that likely bring a lot of emotions to the surface; ones that only he truly knows the effect of. After all, the No. 3, while his number, was neither his alone nor is it the number that most identify him with.
While as a media member I am to be impartial, that does not mean that I need to be indifferent. On a personal level, I sincerely hope that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is able to honor his father in the way that he sees fit Friday night at Daytona International Speedway. Hopefully, fans that remain critical of his decision feel the same way and can let him alone to create his own legacy.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.