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3: The Earnhardt Legacy

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On the cusp of Dale Earnhardt Jr's return to the no. 3 car for the first time since 1999, NASCAR Ranting and Raving considers the meaning and significance of Jr's Wrangler-ride at Daytona on Friday night.

This blog (via 4ever3) has long been the garage leader in presenting the ever-increasing possibility that Dale Earnhardt Jr could leave HMS for RCR to drive the famed no. 3.

May 26, 2010 - Dale Earnhardt Junior's move to Richard Childress Racing is old news - at least to me
"The possibility of Dale Earnhardt Jr driving the #3 RCR car next year in the Sprint Cup Series is now gaining momentum in the mainstream media - they should have came here first as we've been following this story for 5 weeks now."

If Fearless Leader's logic is sound and I'm convinced that it is, then it's only a matter of time before Junior fulfills his destiny and drives the "3" on a full time basis.

As if you Earnhardt diehards needed any further instructions, you can find details after the jump.

On Monday, Dale Jr. dismissed the notion that this would lead to several races in the number 3.

This is a stark revelation, especially for long-suffering Earnhardt fans who dreamed Junior would close out his career in a black  number 3. Junior, too, once thought that was his destiny. No more.

"It's not [my number] to take and use whenever I feel like using it," he said through a sheepish grin. "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."

But we're calling shenanigans. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never needed his father's legacy more than he does right now. Even before leaving DEI for Hendrick Motorsports, Jr Nation was losing faith in both Junior's motivation and capacity to be a driver in Sprint Cup racing.

The 2005 season was Earnhardt Jr's last as a championship contender. Since then he has deposited crew chiefs like most teams drop lugnuts. The 2008 season brought a lot of excitement for "The Nation" when Dale Jr. left for the greener pastures of HMS. That fire soon burned out as Junior won only a single points-paying race in two-plus seasons. Toss in countless pit road errors, the 2009 Daytona Dale-gate and several changes in the pit box and Jr now looks like a dud.

After Earnhardt's initial success in the early 2000s, fans cited the elder Earnhardt's absense as the reson for Little E's struggles. By 2007, it was DEI and Teresa Earnhardt's fault for not supplying a championship winning program. By 2009, it was crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr's turn to play scapegoat.

It's almost time to consider the option that Dale Earnhardt Jr is just plain uncoachable and doesn't have what it takes to win championships at the highest level. Dale Jr is now out of options. He's quite possibly incapable and unwilling to continue the Earnhardt legacy.

It's not that Little E doesn't have the talent. He does. It's just that Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to be his own man at a stage of his career when that's not good enough.

For example, when father and son were racing together in the late 90's and early 2000's, father was black and son was red and blue. Dad was country and his son was rock and roll. That's not even mentioning Jr's bleach blonde haircut from 1997 to 2000. Dale Jr. loves and respects his dad's place in both his heart and NASCAR's soul, but he's just not "The Dale Earnhardt".

Despite being NASCAR's most popular driver, the Dale Jr brand is running out of steam. There is very little that Earnhardt Jr has left to option outside of the RCR no. 3 and now he's vested it.

Let him tell you that Friday is it in the number 3 but don't believe it. With Kasey Khane, Danica Patrick and Landon Cassill becoming more and more of Hendrick's future, Dale Jr is becoming less and less.

Dale Earnhardt Jr has so much left to offer, to both NASCAR and Junior Nation. The most viable amongst them is racing the no. 3 and doing so in the Sprint Cup Series. In doing so, Dale Earnhardt Sr's legacy may be just the spark that Dale Jr needs.