One of the biggest Sprint Cup silly season stories is about the impending ascent of Austin Dillon, whose grandfather, Richard Childress, has an open seat in 2014. The consensus is that Dillon, now in his second year of Nationwide Series competition, will get the seat, after winning the 2011 Camping World Truck Series title and challenging for the past two in Nationwide.
The only obstacle: Dillon's usage of No. 3, the number that the late Dale Earnhardt took to glory in Childress's cars until his tragic death on February 18, 2001, on the last lap of a Daytona 500 led by his employee, Michael Waltrip, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dillon wants to run the number. Childress seems to have no problem with it. And Earnhardt Jr. himself has no issue with it, confirming as much to multiple media outlets this week, according to ESPN.com:
[If] he wants to run it, I think it's not really fair to deny somebody that opportunity. I'm OK with it. I know that might not be the way a lot of people feel or some people feel, but I'm sure it's the minority that feels that way. I think that a lot of people will be telling Austin positive things about it.
In fact there's only one group that doesn't seem to be impressed with the possibility: diehard Earnhardt fans, who argue that the number never needs to be run again, in honor of their fallen hero.
No, Earnhardt's career numbers can never be discounted. He was no scrub; he won 76 races and seven championships during parts of 27 seasons at NASCAR's highest level, making him one of the sport's all-time legends. He was a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer. The debate over retiring his number has raged on ever since his passing.
But the truth is, it's time to let the debate go. The arrogant sensationalism that suggests that no other driver can possibly race with No. 3, just because it's "Dale Earnhardt's number," is both an outdated way of thinking and an insult to the intelligence of the sport's fanbase.
When a number is retired in another sport, in some ways, it honors the accomplishments of all of those to wear that number.
The Boston Bruins retired No. 7 in honor of Phil Esposito back in 1987, but the act also honors the accomplishments of fellow Hall of Famers Ray Bourque and Cooney Weiland. No. 3 belonged to many other great drivers in NASCAR history, from Junior Johnson to Ricky Rudd to Childress himself.
Need a more comprehensive list? Add David Pearson, Fireball Roberts, Dick Rathman, Donald Thomas, both Bakers (Buck and Buddy), LeeRoy Yarbrough, Charlie Glotzbach and Bobby Isaac. Total their accomplishments and they're as impressive as any group of drivers any fan could ever assemble.
So what of No. 43, the number that Petty took to 192 of his 200 career victories? Or No. 21, which drivers from A.J. Foyt to Tiny Lund piloted to numerous championships and Daytona 500 victories on behalf of the Wood Brothers?
By the same token, No. 11, with Johnson, Darrell Waltrip, Ned Jarrett, and Cale Yarborough, should have been taken out of circulation when Brett Bodine's team folded; it's the winningest number in Sprint Cup history, with 202 victories.
If people are not making arguments for No. 43 or No. 21, chances are it's because they're respectful of the current owners—Petty and the Woods—wanting to carry on with those numbers.
No. 3 was Childress's racing number as an owner before it was Earnhardt's as a driver. It's his choice on whether or not it should be run. It always has been.
And it's not like a number hasn't come out of exile in other sports thanks to lineage before. Going back to hockey, the Phoenix Coyotes unretired Bobby Hull's No. 9 (part of their heritage in Winnipeg) for son Brett. Earnhardt Jr. has run No. 3 himself in a handful of Busch and Nationwide events and has been encouraged to run it in Sprint Cup before in honor of his father.
Why can't Dillon run it in honor of his grandfather?
One of the most compelling arguments in Earnhardt's favor was that he was crucial to the growth of the sport during his time at the top, much like Jackie Robinson in baseball or Wayne Gretzky in hockey. It's true, seven championships from 1980 to 1994 is an impressive feat. Seventy-six race victories are as well.
But was Earnhardt involved in the famous fight during the 1979 Daytona 500 that made NASCAR a hot water cooler topic around the nation for the first time?
Was he the man they called "Jaws," the man who went from defiant antihero to beloved television personality (or something like that)?
Was he the young California kid who burst into the sport in the 1990s and proved that being a Southerner was neither a prerequisite for enjoying the sport nor for dominating it?
Petty and Johnson had movies made about them, not only during their lifetime, but in the midst of their careers as drivers and owners. Why didn't Earnhardt?
There's no denying that he was an important figure to the history of the sport, and always will be, but how much of the argument to retire his number is based simply on idol worship over his driving style?
And even there, the argument begins to fall apart. Robinson wasn't like Ty Cobb, sharpening his cleats and sliding feet up to scare second basemen as he stole bases. Gretzky wasn't the kind of player who would take a ton of penalties, posting 577 penalty minutes in 1,487 games, an average of a meager 23.3 seconds in the penalty box per game.
This is the part when you should search for "Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Bristol" on YouTube and see what comes up. Twice. In different years.
In a sport that has never retired a number and most likely never will, is that the kind of guy whose number you want to be taken out of circulation first?
And if you're not convinced by all of that, ask yourself this. Will NASCAR retire the 48 for Jimmie Johnson? Earnhardt never won five consecutive championships. Johnson is only 13 wins behind him, despite having run about half as many seasons. And while Johnson's worst points finish, so far, in a full season has been sixth, Earnhardt had eight finishes of seventh or worse in 22 seasons.
And the number only had three wins before Johnson inherited it.
You want to retire a number because a single guy ran it better than anyone else? Retire it for Johnson. Or better yet, don't retire any numbers at all. Let them carry on as they always have: free for the next great driver to create his legacy with it.
After all, if No. 3 was always reserved for a guy with the last name "Baker," who knows what number Earnhardt would have made famous?
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.
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