Austin Dillon and the 3

Austin Dillon is one of the top drivers in NASCAR’s 300-miles-and-under race circuit, the Nationwide Series.  He won the 2010 Rookie of the Year award and the 2011 championship in NASCAR’s Camping World truck-racing series.  Dillon currently has a chance to earn the series championship, and eventually he could drive his way into NASCAR’s top division, the Sprint Cup Series.

And when he gets there, he might resurrect a part of history that could make some race fans uncomfortable.

Throughout his racing career, Dillon has predominantly driven cars and trucks that contained the number 3. Like in this commercial, for instance.

Dillon’s grandfather is motorsports team owner Richard Childress, and for many years Childress drove the 3 car in what was then NASCAR’s Winston Cup circuit. Childress chose the number 3 for his ride, to honor legendary NASCAR driver Junior Johnson.

Although Childress never won a Cup race in his career, he did find someone to pilot the 3 car – some guy named Dale Earnhardt. Ever hear of him?

The partnership between Earnhardt and Childress lasted for decades, and produced six out of Earnhardt’s seven Winston Cup championships.

Then came the 2001 Daytona 500. The final lap.

And from that moment on, no driver has ever raced the 3 car in NASCAR’s top circuit. The car was renumbered 29 when Kevin Harvick finished the rest of the 2001 season in Earnhardt’s ride; Harvick still drives the 29 for Richard Childress Racing today. For all intents and purposes, the number 3 has been “retired” from Cup races.

Dale Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has raced the 3 car in special Nationwide races, but never in the top circuit. Childress has often said that if Earnhardt Jr. ever raced for Richard Childress Racing, the 3 car would be available in a heartbeat.  Unfortunately, Earnhardt currently drives for a competing team, Hendrick Motorsports, so that number transfer isn’t happening any time soon.

But that number might reappear if Austin Dillon ever wanted to race in the Sprint Cup series.

According to this Associated Press story, Dillon is seriously considering using the 3 car should he ever graduate to the Cup series.  Since Childress owns the right to use that number on his race cars, and since Dillon is Childress’ grandson, this could actually happen.

Ownership rights to the 109 available two-digit numeric combinations (1-99, 01-09, 0, 00) are fiercely guarded by team owners.  When Danica Patrick wanted to use the number 7 in the Sprint Cup series – a number that was associated with her IndyCar career – the owner of the Sprint Cup rights to the number 7, Robby Gordon, refused to relinquish the number.  Thus, Patrick can drive the 7 in NASCAR’s Nationwide series, but in Sprint Cup she pilots the 10 car.

But how would Earnhardt Nation feel about someone else driving the legendary black 3 car?  There are still race fans who will always associate the number 3 with the Intimidator himself.  And now the number of one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history might get transferred to someone who isn’t an Earnhardt?  That’s like someone not related to Richard Petty driving the 43 STP car.

Well, there have been PLENTY of drivers piloting the 43 car after Richard Petty retired – Bobby Labonte, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Aric Almirola, several others.  Yes, the 43 will always have an association with “The King,” just as the 3 will always have an association with “The Intimidator.”

And this begets a question.  When a sports team or a league retires a player’s number, what does that entail?  Are we saying that this person was so great, his skills were so dominating, he was so beloved by the team, that we don’t want our memories of this great player tarnished because some call-up from the minors who’s hitting .125 and leading the league in strikeouts and errors is wearing his uniform?

The news story does say, however, that should Dillon actually participate in the Sprint Cup series, he might drive the 3 – but it probably won’t be the black “Intimindator” look.  And the stylized logo of the 3 – a forceful, dynamic, forward-tilting digit – will also be altered.

That way, the fans can still appreciate their memories of Dale Earnhardt…

And new fans can appreciate this new kid in the 3 car as he makes some new memories.

But Austin Dillon better get his skills honed and fast.  Because there’s someone else on the horizon, someone who’s currently tearing up NASCAR’s Camping World Trucks series.

Some kid named Ty Dillon.  Oh yeah, that’s Austin Dillon’s younger brother.  And yes, Ty Dillon drives the 3 truck as well.