There have been few occasions in NASCAR that generate so much buzz and strong opinion as the announcement Wednesday that 23-year old Austin Dillon will bring the No. 3 back into Sprint Cup Series competition for the first time since seven-time Cup champ Dale Earnhardt was killed driving the No. 3 Chevy in a last lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500.
"The number" has been a source of emotional debate for fans, some who have felt it should be retired, others who feel the best tribute would be seeing it in Victory Lane again.
For some of the high profile team members that worked on the 3-car at Richard Childress Racing during the Earnhardt tenure, it will admittedly be a mixed bag of feelings and anticipation.
These are the guys, after all, who every weekend worked in the trenches, formulated the strategies, knew Earnhardt best and celebrated the victories and agonized over the losses. It was their car too.
"Obviously to work at RCR for four years and be a huge part of that 3-car for two years and winning the Daytona 500 in 1998 with it, well ? it's going to be interesting to see it again,'' said former crew chief Larry McReynolds, who led Earnhardt to his only Daytona 500 victory before moving into his current television analyst position with FOX Sports.
"I don't know what I'm going to feel until we see it roll out on pit road for that first practice session at Speedweeks.
"And being a broadcaster now, you have to remember we have not talked about the 3-car on track other than our very first race with FOXSports, that first year (when Earnhardt was killed).
"I've thought a lot about it and you could poll 100 people and 50 will be for it and 50 that are against it. I think the sport's ready for it to come back and I think it's very fitting that it's either an Earnhardt or a Childress/Dillon? it wouldn't be right for a Clint Bowyer, or a Paul Menard or Jeff Burton or anyone else to show up in it.''
Earnhardt's son Dale Earnhardt Jr. has repeatedly given his blessing to Dillon. And team owner Richard Childress has been both respectful and dutiful in his timing and decision to bring back the 3-car to Cup competition with his own grandson, who has already won a Camping World Truck Series crown and just recently the Nationwide Series titles with the digit.
Rather than pure emotion, much of it boils down to historical context for one of the most popular and recognizable members of RCR's operation, Danny "Chocolate" Myers. He has been with the company for three decades in many roles but in most fans' minds is forever associated as Earnhardt's fuel-man during six championship seasons.
"Even before Dale, I was friends with Richard (Childress),'' Myers explained. "I helped him back in the day. We grew up together, raced together. My very first win ever in NASCAR was helping Richard Childress Racing and we won the race at Martinsville, Va. in 1983 with Ricky Rudd driving and, by the way, that was the 3-car.
"My first win ever with Dale was at Talladega in the 3-car. My feelings are. ? Ty Dillon won a truck race this year and was in Victory Lane and said, 'this is the 100th win for the No. 3 at RCR, I wish Dale could have done it, but he's not here. So I'm proud to be a part of it.'
"And I kind of feel the same way.''
As the co-host of the popular Sirius XM weekday radio show, "Tradin' Paint," Myers has recently been hearing opinions from passionate fans daily on the re-launch of the 3-car in the Cup Series. He understands the various trains of thought, even if he doesn't always agree.
"Somebody called the radio show the other day and was talking about the 3 and what a big deal it was and said that nobody ever got killed in the No. 43 that Richard Petty drove but Dale died in the 3 so no one should run it again,'' Myers recalled.
"I told him, 'Buddy, my daddy got killed at Darlington in 1953 driving the No. 4. When I see a 4-car do good, I'm okay with it.'
"I know this is Dale Earnhardt and the famous black No. 3, but let's face the facts. The car was yellow and blue before it was black and there were a lot of other colors in between. People say mean and hateful stuff, but they're wrong.
"This is the right decision and what people don't understand is NASCAR is not going to retire that number. And they've been gracious to let us hold on to it as long as we have, but there comes a time somebody needs to drive that No. 3 and if not someone from the family, then who knows what could happen. It could have been a start-and-park. So I think this is the right thing to do.''
Both Myers and McReynolds acknowledged that some fans will be reticent to accept the situation initially, but both men think ultimately having Dillon compete and win in the 3-car will benefit the sport, even help Dillon win over some fans.
"I don't think the people that jumped on the (Dale Earnhardt) Junior bandwagon will be leaving any time soon,'' chucked McReynolds. "But maybe they'll add a few more shelves to their "man cave" and put Austin Dillon and 3 memorabilia on the shelves. I do think the majority of our fans -- old, new or casual -- are going to embrace it.
"I know you can't go on everyone's opinion but when I heard Dale Earnhardt Jr. say just a few months ago, 'I'm okay with it, I'm glad it's Richard Childress' grandson' -- that right there probably meant more to our fans, to hear him say that.
"It's almost like he's giving it the thumbs-up, giving his blessing. And hey, I'm sure it's going to be very different for him to look in the windshield, look in the rearview mirror or out the left side of his car and see that 3-number out there.''
"Of all places for that number to break back out at Daytona International Speedway, and that was last time we saw it out there racing, it was at that race track.
"It's probably going to be very emotional for Michael Waltrip, when he runs the Daytona 500 this year,'' McReynolds said thoughtfully. "When you think about Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael, it has to be a little emotional for them when it becomes a reality.''
For another of Earnhardt's former crew chiefs Andy Petree, it's about lasting memories and good people, not a car number. It's timing, and knowing when to move on.
"It's really more about what Richard thinks because that's his number,'' Petree said. "I remember before Dale ever drove the car so I see it coming full circle. I understand where a lot of the fans have a lot of feelings about the 3 and a lot of feelings about Earnhardt. So I just defer to Richard because if he thinks it's the right time to bring it back, then it is. It's his decision.
"Dale was a friend of mine and I'll always miss him, but it's not like that particular number on the race track is going to affect me. I still see that as Richard's number.
"I always look forward. I don't like to look back.''
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