Ever since the day Dale Earnhardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500 debate has raged amongst fans as to whether or not his car number (number three) should be used again in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
I'll be honest with you I was one of those people that initially thought that the number three should have been retired. It was more of an emotional knee-jerk response than a decision based on rational thought. But as I regained my senses in the time that followed Dale's death I realized that his number wouldn't be retired, it would set a precedent that would cause too many problems for NASCAR and those who participate in it (i.e., car owners). I mean other people drove the number three before Dale, including NASCAR legend Junior Johnson.
And add the fact that the number itself and the way it is designed was not owned by Dale Earnhardt but by his car owner Richard Childress. In fact, Childress drove that stylized number three before Earnhardt even did. Heck Ricky Rudd even drove the RCR stylized number three for a brief time in the 1980's when Earnhardt left RCR to go drive with Bud Moore in the number fifteen!
Based on these facts I reached the conclusion that the stylized number three owned by RCR should not be retired, it is Richard Childress's number and he can do with it what he wants. But I did hold out that maybe he should change the style of the number so that it was not the same as the one that Dale used.
I never really had issues with RCR using the same stylized number in the Truck Series or in Nationwide as Earnhardt never really used that number on a consistent basis in those series - I don't even think Dale ever drove in a Truck race anyway - so any association with the number three in those series never really mattered to me until Dale Earnhardt Jr. started using it in Nationwide.
I then changed my mind. Anyone could drive the three car if they wanted, but not in the RCR stylized number three that Dale Earnhardt drove at the time of his death, except for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Period. End of story.
I even thought this would come true as I speculated that Earnhardt Jr., Richard Childress, and Rick Hendrick would reach an agreement to have Dale Jr. drive a RCR stylized number three for the 2011 season marking the tenth anniversary of his father's death and solve the problem of what to do with Kasey Khane who was under contract with Rick Hendrick for the 2011 season yet didn't have a car to drive until the 2012 season.
Then one night in July of 2010 my opinion changed yet again as I realized the emotional impact of using of the RCR stylized three that Dale Jr. had to deal with as he won at Daytona in a Nationwide race while diving a RCR stylized three car painted in one of his father's more famous paint schemes. Dale Jr. did want to drive a RCR stylized three car, but not for a season. He just wanted to drive it for one race stating, "I just want to go to the racetrack and run it once before I retire, and this will probably be it. After this, I'll probably never drive a car with a 3 on it again. I can pretty much say I'm 99 percent sure that will never happen again."
The deal to get Jr. in the three car came together exactly how I outlined it would but as Jr mentioned it was only for one race.
Dale Jr. was done with the "Three Legacy" and in an interview he said, "It's not [my number] to take and use whenever I feel like using it. 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."
Well that kid that Dale Jr. is referring to is Austin Dillon. Austin has been racing with the number three on the side of his car since he was in go-karts. In fact he's been using the same RCR stylized three that Dale Earnhardt made famous. How is that possible you ask? Austin's Grandpa is Richard Childress.
Austin has been around racing all of his life, he even knew the elder Earnhardt, and the only number that ever meant anything to him was the number three - the number his Grandfather used when he raced at NASCAR's top level and the number his Grandfather put on the side of NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt's car.
The number three belongs to Richard Childress and if he wishes to put it on the side of his Grandson's car then so be it. I'm pretty sure that was going to be the plan all along anyway whether Dale lived or not.
Being a long-time Earnhardt fan I'm O.K. with Austin using the three. I'm even O.K. with him using the RCR stylized number three too. I think he has more right to use it than anyone else, even Earnhardt Jr. for that matter.
At this point in time I'm done with "The 3 Debate", it is old and warn out as far as I'm concerned. I'm over it. In fact, I can't wait to see it in Cup again. It's been over 10 years since it was last used there, it would be nice to see it once more - RCR stylized or not!