Sunday promises to be very emotional for some NASCAR fans, as something we have not seen since 2001 returns to track. This year's Daytona 500 will feature the first race featuring the black Number 3 Chevrolet to race since the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Austin Dillon has put the #3 in the pole position for the race--turning in the fastest qualifying time last weekend.
The decision by Richard Childress Racing--which retains the right to use the #3 on its car in the Sprint Cup Series--has caused a deep division among NASCAR fans. Hardcore Earnhardt fans consider someone else driving the black #3 to be an insult to their hero's legacy. And to have some young, unproven guy running that car at the race where Dale was killed on the last lap is blasphemous. They want the 3 car retired--forever--as the only fitting tribute.
But others--myself included--are glad to see the #3 back on the track. The grieving period has been over for some time now. I admit, that my interest in NASCAR waned (along with millions of other fans) after the death of Dale, Sr. I compared it to what it would be like for football fans around here if the Packers just suddenly stopped playing. Yes, the NFL would be going on--but would you care nearly as much without your team in there to cheer for?
I've always had mixed feelings about retired numbers as being the "ultimate honor" for a sporting legend. The practice began with the New York Yankees declaring that no one would ever wear #4 again, following the death of Lou Gehrig. The Yanks have since retired so many numbers that their players now are all forced to wear football numbers like 71 and 53. Major League Baseball made all teams "retire" the number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson a few years ago. Commissioner Bud Selig believed that no one else should wear that number for as long as the game is played. But wouldn't Robinson's legacy be honored more if one of the dwindling number of African-American players in the Majors wore #42 on every team? Kids, unaware of the Robinson story would learn more from seeing that number in action on TV every night (and hearing the players talk about why they wear it) than they would from NOT being able to see it.
Syracuse University Football has a very cool tradition where a select few running backs get to wear the number 44--made famous by Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little. A player cannot request 44--it can only be bestowed upon a back that coaches and players agree exemplifies the quality of player and person that has worn it before. Last year, Michigan Football "unretired" all of its numbers and started a Heritage Jersey program--with special players "honored" by wearing the number of Wolverines legends before them (with patches on the jerseys detailing the all-time great who wore it first.)
The black #3 Chevrolet should not become a museum piece of NASCAR history. It should be out there on the track--reminding people of the legend who guided it to so many great victories and 7 Winston Cup Championships. Nothing will honor the legend of Dale Earnhardt more to see that car where it belongs--leading laps at Daytona.