DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When you want to understand Christianity, you head to Jerusalem. When you want to understand the Beatles, you head to Liverpool. And when you want to understand Dale Earnhardt, you head to the infield at Daytona International Speedway. Turn 3, of course.
It’s not overstating the case to say that for Earnhardt fans, this is holy ground, here in the shadow of same high banks where Earnhardt died 13 years ago. People wear their Earnhardt fandom on their sleeves, on their chests, on their vehicles, on their skin. What better place, then, to suss out the fans’ take on one of the most controversial issues in recent NASCAR history: the return of the No. 3 to the track at NASCAR’s highest level.
In short: no driver has run the No. 3 since Earnhardt’s death on this very track in 2001. But NASCAR doesn’t retire numbers, and Earnhardt’s team owner Richard Childress has hung onto the number, biding his time. Now, he believes, the time is right … and the driver who will return it to the track is none other than Childress’ own grandson, Austin Dillon.
“It was going to come back, and you always wondered how and when and what the situation would be,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said earlier this week. “It's a good situation I can be comfortable with. I'm happy because it could just as easily have been a difficult situation that I wouldn't have been comfortable with.”
Earnhardt’s opinion is a valued and necessary one, giving Dillon an imprimatur of legitimacy when the young rookie might otherwise be left to the tender mercies of a rabid 3-worshipping fanbase. Many of them have protested long and loud on message boards and comment sections, screaming in ALL CAPS, proper spelling optional, that the 3 belongs to Earnhardt and should remain sacrosanct.
Here’s the thing, though: you get out in the world, out in Turn 3, and people are ready to move on.
Oh, the sentiment is by no means unanimous. There’s still some trepidation, some frustration and disappointment. But by and large, most fans consulted in the highly unscientific narrow post-Saturday-race, pre-Saturday-night-partying window echoed the sentiment of Erin Ray of Treasure Island, Fla.: “It’s awesome. I’m happy to see it back out there.”
Every Earnhardt fan has a personal connection to the 3, and Ray is no different. Her husband Ken is an Earnhardt fan from way back; her first race happened to be the Daytona 500 where Earnhardt died. (Darkly humorous side note: after the race, Erin Ray went back to their hotel. While waiting for news of Earnhardt’s condition, she put on a movie she’d never seen before. That movie? “Old Yeller.” Tragedy atop tragedy.)
A few steps down from the Rays’ campsite is a legendary Daytona infield locale, “Camp 3.” A neon sign visible all over the infield looms high above the “club” (a tent with speakers, tables, bar, and an “Open” sign). Here, the Earnhardt fandom runs strong, and here, club “manager” Billy Humphreys of Osteen, Fla. is also willing to live and let drive.
“A number’s just a number,” he says. “It’s the driver that makes it special. If [Dillon] goes out and wins seven championships, nobody’s going to say anything about it.”
That’s pretty unlikely, but it illustrates the mountain Dillon has to climb to stop anyone from thinking he’s running a borrowed number. Consider, for instance, the interesting scenario put forth by Megan Ask of Edgewater, Fla.:
“What about when he wrecks? You know that’s going to make everyone think about what happened [to Dale Earnhardt],” she says. “I can’t even imagine what would be going through Junior’s mind.”
The 3 is already turning laps at Daytona, but there’s one stark difference: the car isn’t all-black like Earnhardt’s. That, Dillon said recently, is by design: “That's one thing my grandfather said from the beginning: We weren't going to have it black. So, luckily, the Cheerios car and the Dow car, our sponsors, have some black in their colors. The most we've got on a paint scheme is 60 percent. That's one thing… but we're definitely respectful and going to keep it color-sensitive.”
That comes as welcome news to one interested fan: Martha Earnhardt, Dale’s mother. “Just as long as they don't make it look like the (iconic) No. 3,” she said recently. “If they painted it a different color … I can sort of deal with it, but I don't want to see the black No. 3 just like Dale's.”
Regardless of whether they believe the 3 belongs back on the track, though, fans indicated they will support Dillon. (“The only one I boo is the 24 [Jeff Gordon],” Ask laughs.) And perhaps it’s just the limited sample size, but there are fewer #3 flags flying now in the infield than #48, #88, or #14 ones. And soon enough, some of the #3s that fly will feature Dillon, not Earnhardt.