By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Doubtless, there are race fans who believe the return of the No. 3 to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series would amount to heresy.
Though Dale Earnhardt Jr. recognizes that naysayers will decry the revival of the 3, he has a different point of view about the car number closely associated with his late father, Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time series champion.
Earnhardt drove the No. 3 for Richard Childress Racing until a fatal crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 deprived the sport of one of its most charismatic drivers. The number hasn't appeared in the series since then.
But with Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, poised to graduate to NASCAR's top level in 2014 after two full years in NASCAR Nationwide Series cars, the No. 3 likely will make the jump with him. Dillon has driven the No. 3 in the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck series, winning the truck championship with the number in 2011.
"I think it will be great," Earnhardt said Thursday before the opening Sprint Cup practice at Daytona International Speedway. "It was an iconic number for my father, and it means a lot to a lot of his fans. This sport doesn't really retire numbers, and all the numbers have history tied to them ... the No. 3 is no different."
Because of the relationship between the Earnhardts and RCR, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS is keenly aware of Dillon's history with the No. 3, dating to his early days in late models.
"He has earned the right to run that number as long as he wants," Earnhardt said. "It could have been anybody, but it's Austin. It could have been any kid coming up through the ranks that had run that number.
"[If] he wants to run it, I don't think it's 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. I think a lot of people will be telling Austin positive things about it."
If you noticed that a number of cars were late answering the bell for opening Sprint Cup practice on Thursday, look no farther than unapproved parts NASCAR inspectors found on 16 cars.
NASCAR required more than a third of the Coke Zero 400 field to change out non-conforming spacers that support the hinge bars of the roof flaps on the cars. The flaps are designed to keep cars from getting airborne in the event of a spin.
Cars that used spacers differing from those included in the NASCAR-approved hinged air deflector kits were the Chevrolet of Jamie McMurray; the Fords of reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Casey Mears, Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne; and the Toyotas of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Michael Waltrip.
The offending parts were displayed in the NASCAR hauler in the garage for anyone who cared to look. NASCAR will review the violations at next week's competition meeting and decide what punitive action, if any, is warranted.
Subsequently, NASCAR discovered the same infraction in 15 Nationwide Series cars and required teams to replace those parts after Thursday's final practice.
YELEY PAINT SCHEME A HOLIDAY SPECIAL
Here's your all-American, feel-good story for the Coke Zero 400 weekend, courtesy of Tommy Baldwin Racing's No. 36 Golden Corral Chevrolet team.
The car, driven by J.J. Yeley, has a new look that's made-to-order for the July 4 weekend, a red, white and blue paint scheme designed in part by a former Marine and full-time NASCAR fan, Oklahoma native Scott Bates.
Bates is a quadriplegic, having been stricken with Multiple Sclerosis. But while he doesn't have use of his arms or legs, his heart and soul soar.
Using a graphic design device that attaches to the brim of a hat and interfaces with a computer, Bates helped create the paint scheme for Saturday night's race. He also designed a car scheme for Yeley in 2011 at Phoenix International Raceway.
"Scott is just a great story -- and a huge NASCAR fan," Yeley said. "Scott is very proud of this and just the fact that a fan has designed the scheme we get to run this weekend, that means a lot.
"Because he's a fan of mine, Scott sent me four of five renditions of a paint scheme for this race. We asked our sponsor Golden Corral about doing something with Scott. And because Golden Corral has always been a big supporter of disabled veterans ..."
For the past 12 years, Golden Corral has supported America's veterans with their "Military Appreciation Monday" event, serving nearly four million veterans a free meal. (This year's Military Appreciation Monday is on Nov. 11.) Golden Corral also sponsors Camp Corral, which provides a free summer camp experience for children of military families. The Camp Corral logo is featured on the hood and rear quarter panels of the No. 36 this week.
Said Yeley: "This whole thing made so much sense, with the July 4 weekend. It all just fell into place."
ONE YEAR LATER...
A year ago this weekend, NASCAR suspended driver AJ Allmendinger for a violation of its substance abuse program. On the day of the 2012 Coke Zero 400, Allmendinger was replaced in the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford by Sam Hornish Jr.
After completing NASCAR's Road to Recovery program last year, Allmendinger was reinstated, and his fortunes have improved exponentially since then. Driving for Penske in the Indianapolis 500, Allmendinger led 23 laps and finished seventh.
On June 22, he picked up his first NASCAR victory in the Nationwide Series race at Road America. Driving for Phoenix Racing on Thursday afternoon, Allmendinger was fastest in opening Sprint Cup practice, topping the speed chart at 200.218 mph. He and Clint Bowyer (200.214 mph) were the only drivers to exceed 200 mph in the session.
As the fastest driver in opening practice, Allmendinger would start from the pole Saturday night if a Friday afternoon rainstorm should happen to wash out qualifying.