When is a number more than just a number? The answer is when said number is one of the most iconic in all of motorsports and represents one of the NASCAR's greatest drivers who happened to have been tragically killed on the final lap of the sport's marquee race.
But 13 years after the death of Dale Earnhardt, the slanted white No. 3 that he made famous will return to competition at NASCAR's highest level. Earnhardt's close friend and former car owner, Richard Childress, confirmed Wednesday he will field the number for his grandson Austin Dillon, who will be a Sprint Cup Series rookie in 2014.
"I know in my heart, today, as I sit here, Dale Earnhardt is smiling down," Childress said has he unveiled the No. 3 car Dillon will race in 2014. "He would want to see this 3; he didn't ever want it to go away.
"I know today that he's accepting this highly. I knew him that well."
There are some, understandably, who feel the No. 3 should be retired. Their belief is that the number forever belongs to Earnhardt, and seeing someone else behind the wheel of a No. 3 car will conjure up painful memories that may have subsided with time, but have never permanently vanished.
This idea of retiring the 3 isn't without merit nor is it unprecedented.
Earnhardt was a titan on the racetrack. His seven Cup championships are only equaled by Richard Petty, and six of Earnhardt's titles came as driver of the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 entry.
More than just a NASCAR great, in a lot of respects Earnhardt was also a folk hero. He was someone who not only symbolized the rough-and-tumble nature of stock car racing, but was as blue-collar as they come and a driver fans related to easily. For these reasons he had a legion of supporters. And his death shook NASCAR to its very core, with reverberations still felt today.
As for the notion of a motorsports sanctioning body retiring a number, that, too, is not unfounded. The open-wheel series formerly known as CART retired the No. 99 following the 1999 death of Greg Moore in a racing accident.
However, NASCAR doesn't retire numbers. It never has, and in all likelihood never will.
Thusly, it seemed a given that at some point the No. 3 would return. The only hope was when that day came it would be with a deserving driver who appreciates the history and the significance of what it means to have the 3 on the side of your car.
Fortunately, Dillon is that guy.
The 23-year-old knows and fully accepts the burden that comes with running the No. 3. He used the number in both the Nationwide and Truck Series where he won championships, and every step along the way he has been respectful of its legacy.
For Dillon, the 3 is more than just Earnhardt's number: it's his family's number. Childress used the number when he ran Cup, and when he transitioned from driver into the role as full-time owner, the 3 was the number he continued to utilize.
As a kid growing up, Dillon fondly remembers that every time Earnhardt won a race his grandfather would come home with a smile on his face and a pizza in his hand. So when he decided to start racing why would he not choose the number that brought him such happiness as a child and in turn, also honor his grandfather?
It was a decision made with the purest intent.
"It's a huge responsibility," Dillon said. "Everybody knows who made this number famous. My grandfather and (Earnhardt) were able to build something great that will never be touched. But we feel like bringing it back with my grandfather and RCR ... it's going to be special."
And the idea of Dillon using the 3 wasn't made without much deliberation or consultation. Childress discussed his plan with both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister, Kelley. And if either would have had any objections, Childress would have nixed bringing back the number. But neither Earnhardt Jr. nor his sister opposed seeing the return of the No. 3 that their father made famous.
"Excited for you Austin! We got your back," Kelley Earnhardt wrote on Twitter shortly after Wednesday's announcement.
After 13 years of remembrance, the No. 3 is returning. Best of all, it's being done with proper respect shown by all involved. And really, what better tribute to Earnhardt's legacy is there than seeing the No. 3 with a driver behind the wheel who appreciates everything the number represents.
Simply put: it's time.