No matter how promising a young Chicago Bulls basketball player might be, he'll never wear the number 23. Same thing with rookies for the Yankees and Broncos and the number 7, or a Lakers kid and the number 32. Icons wore those numbers, and closed the door on anyone ever doing so again.
NASCAR has its own icons, drivers who fundamentally altered the way the sport runs. And yet not only are their numbers not retired, they're still very much in use. Richard Petty's famous 43 has passed from driver to -- let's be charitable -- less-than-Petty driver for years. And now, the most famous number in NASCAR -- the black No. 3 of Dale Earnhardt -- is returning to the track every single week.
The 3 won't be running in Sprint Cup; at least, not yet. But Austin Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress, will be driving the 3 in the Camping World Truck Series every week. While there are no plans to run the 3 at NASCAR's highest level, the day is soon coming when that could be a reality.
And that means it's time for NASCAR and Childress to do the right thing and arrange for the number to be retired.
Certainly, a permanent retirement of the 3 is not what Childress wants. He has no plans to use the 3, but wants to keep the number open should an Earnhardt decide once again to take it on. "If an Earnhardt comes along some day, a grandson or a great grandson or whatever, you never know," he's said.
In Scene Daily, RCR's Jeff Burton said he doesn't believe the 3 should remain on the sidelines forever. "The 3 has a history to it and it has a heritage to it, and that history and heritage is not only linked to Dale Earnhardt but to Richard Childress Racing," he said. "They collectively made the 3 a symbol of success and a commitment to do everything it took to win. … It is such a huge part of our sport, it should only be back in the right situation."
I get where Childress and Burton are coming from here. Childress certainly respects Earnhardt's legacy, and he's not out to make a quick buck. At the same time, who can you imagine driving a car with the No. 3 on the side? Even in Sprint Cup right this moment, there are only a few, and most don't even run for Childress (yet). Just for the heck of it, let's consider:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Not likely. In many ways, the Earnhardt name is more burden than benefit for Junior. You think the comparisons to his father are bad now; what would happen if he started running the 3?
Kyle Busch. He's the current driver whose style most resembles Earnhardt's, but the splashing sound you just heard was Earnhardt Nation spitting its cornflakes -- and, possibly, some blood -- at the very thought of Kyle running in the sainted 3.
Kevin Harvick. He's the one driver under the RCR banner who could carry on the Earnhardt number with the blessing of the Intimidator faithful; he did it already in the days immediately following Earnhardt's death. But Harvick still hasn't attained the iconic status necessary to bear the 3.
Tony Stewart. I like this idea, but it's got absolutely no basis in reality. Put aside the fact that Stewart is his own team owner; he's enough of a legend in his own right that he doesn't need to be wearing the mantle of anyone else.
Beyond that, there's ... who? Certainly nobody else in Sprint Cup. Maybe there's a fast riser somewhere in the lower ranks who has the style and talent of an Earnhardt, but is it fair to saddle that kid with the most famous number in NASCAR? Of course not.
The only reasonable option for NASCAR and Childress, then, is to formally retire the number. NASCAR, alone among all the major sports, doesn't retire drivers' numbers. And -- hey, here's a surprise -- there's no overriding reason why. Brian France was asked in 2005 why NASCAR doesn't retire numbers like the 3 and Richard Petty's 43, he replied, "We just haven't. I can't tell you there's a technical answer. It's just not something that we've historically done."
The time to change is now. Retire the number. Give Childress a cut of the merchandising rights -- shoot, keep the same arrangement that's in effect right now running in perpetuity, and give Childress the chance to pick up another number if he so desires.
NASCAR is preparing to honor its leading lights this May with the opening of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Why not use this as an occasion to memorialize some of NASCAR's most famous numbers?
And you can start with number 3.