Views from the Grandstands: Bring back the No. 3

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After a decade without the classic Earnhardt car in NASCAR’s top-level races, 2011 is the perfect time for Richard Childress to put that icon back on the track

I was walking down the cereal aisle at the grocery store a few weeks ago and spotted boxes of Cheerios proudly advertising a prize inside, specifically a toy race car with decals for the Richard Childress teams. Pictured on the box was a No. 29 Shell car, a No. 31 Caterpillar car, a No. 33 Cheerios car.

And a black No. 3.

I bought a couple boxes and immediately opened them when I got home. Both had No. 3 cars inside. This, my friends, tells me two things. First, I’m still a 12-year-old when it comes to getting prizes in cereal boxes. And second, I have to believe that black No. 3 is going to return to NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, maybe sooner than later.

After Dale Earnhardt’s death at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500, Childress righly pulled the number from competition. Dale Jr. ran a No. 3 car in one 2002 Nationwide Series race and again in a 2003 event honoring past NASCAR champions. The number went back on the shelf until last year, when Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon used it in the truck series, and this year Dillon’s truck is a black No. 3 with a Bass Pro Shops sponsorship.

A black No. 3 truck is one thing. A black No. 3 Sprint Cup car back in the thick of competition would be something else entirely.

For the record, NASCAR doesn’t “retire” numbers. The 28 didn’t go away when Davey Allison died, for example, nor was the 43 shelved after Richard Petty called it a career. Also, plenty of numbers have enjoyed success with multiple drivers. The one that immediately springs to my mind is the Wood Brothers’ No. 21, which has been carried by such outstanding drivers as David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, Buddy Baker and Dale Jarrett over the years.

Even the No. 3 has a history that predates its Earnhardt connection. NASCAR assigned it to Childress long before Ironhead ever got in the car and, in fact, Childress himself drove with the number from 1976 through 1981, winning a grand total of zero races.

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I think, however, almost everyone who cares about NASCAR would agree that the No. 3 is a special case. At least in my lifetime, no car/driver combination has provoked as much emotion throughout the entire fan base.

When asked about the possibility of its return, Childress has said he has no plans to bring it back but that he’ll “never say never.” So what should he do? Here are the options:

1. Childress could keep the number out indefinitely. Most race fans think he’s done the right thing so far. And if he chooses to hold it out for the foreseeable future, we couldn’t really argue with him.

2. He could turn the number back in to NASCAR and let them reassign it to some other team. Bad idea.

3. He could bring back the No. 3 with different colors. This seems like a non-starter. If he wants to avoid the wrath of some of Earnhardt’s most dedicated fans by completely remaking the 3’s identity, then just run a totally different number and avoid the issue altogether.

4. He could unretire the black No. 3. I believe this is absolutely the right move — but only with the right driver.

Returning that car to the track would provoke a tremendous response, not all of it good. There’s no doubt that a certain percentage of Earnhardt’s most passionate supporters would see it as sullying their hero’s legacy. I’m sympathetic but, to me, seeing the black No. 3 out there mixing it up in the heat of battle again would bring back a lot of fantastic memories, and help us old-time fans teach NASCAR’s new fans about the sport’s arguably greatest performer and personality.

To me, the big issue is who should drive it. Some would argue that Dale Jr. is the only driver who should run that number. Others might say that Childress should hold off until promising 20-year-old Jeffrey Earnhardt, the grandson of Dale Sr. and son of Kerry Earnhardt, proves himself ready.

My take is this: Dale Jr. shouldn’t drive the black No. 3. He will drive a No. 3 with blue-and-yellow Wrangler livery at next month’s Daytona Nationwide race, but the last thing Jr. needs is the kind of pressure he’d shoulder in that iconic ebony auto. If Childress wants Jeffrey at some point, that’s fine; it’d be fun to have a “next generation” Earnhardt in the black No. 3, and would spark the discussion of his granddad’s feats and foibles.

However, Childress shouldn’t be limited by blood. If and when he decides to bring the black No. 3 back, the driver just needs to be someone who personifies Earnhardt’s spirit and drive. No matter who ends up in that car, there will never be another Intimidator. But there definitely should be another black No. 3.

Loose Lugnuts

Enduring love The 12 Hours of Sebring was as fun as always, even though my beloved Corvettes ran into each other during a green-flag pit stop and threw away a potential victory. I love seeing all the cars of so many different sizes and shapes circulating out there together, and I appreciate the on-track research and development work they do. If you get a chance, tune in for a bit of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which airs June 12-13 on Speed. I’ll be watching to see if the Corvettes can rebound with a victory in the biggest race of the year — and hoping they can at least finish without wrecking each other.

Eye of the beholder Speaking of the endurance cars, I cannot understand how the closed-top prototype cars from badges like Peugeot and Aston Martin in the American Le Mans Series look so fantastic while their Daytona Prototype “cousins” in NASCAR’s Rolex Grand Am Series are just so ugly. My big issue with the Daytona Prototypes is that they’re too upright in the front and their greenhouses are too tall. To me, they look more like snowplows than racecars. By contrast, the ALMS cars are lower and swoopier and way more individual. NASCAR seems happy with the Daytona Prototypes, but if they ever decide to redesign the class, I can tell them exactly where to look for inspiration.

No more roar? Paul Drayson, who ran a Lola at Sebring, is also Great Britain’s Minister for Science and Innovation. (What a cool job that must be!) At Sebring, he predicted that, within a decade, series like American Le Mans could field nothing but electric cars. As a racing fan, I’m not sure what I think about that. I like that racing continues to play a crucial role in the advancement of everything from brakes to oil to fuel types. But I love the roar of the engines — from the low rumble of the NASCAR Sprint Cup cars to the high-pitched whine of the Formula 1 machines — as much as I love the sight of the colorful vehicles whipping around the track. I applauded the introduction of the ultra-quiet Audi diesels into ALMS a few seasons ago, but I fear an entire field of cars quietly humming along would be too weird for me.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at