By Matt Crossman
Austin Dillon passed the test. Almost no other driver would have. But Dillon possesses the right amount of respect for the sport's history, a suitable amount of talent to drive at the Cup level and the great good fortune to be Richard Childress's grandson and drive for Richard Childress Racing. Now he gets to drive the No. 3.
Fans will either love it or hate it. It'll either be awesome or a disaster. In NASCAR, when you take over Dale Earnhardt's number, there can be no middle ground. This is the Yankees giving out the No. 3, the Bulls doling out 23, the Dodgers assigning 42... and... and that's it. There are no others numbers in the history of pro sports that carry as much weight as Earnhardt and his No. 3. The only other number in NASCAR that comes close is the 43, and nobody seems to care that numerous men have driven it since Richard Petty quit driving 21 years ago.
NASCAR fans have debated for years who, if anyone, should get to drive the No. 3 car, made so famous by Earnhardt as he won the final six of his seven championships driving for Richard Childress Racing. (He won his first championship in the No. 2 car.) There had to be, it seems, a blood connection to make bringing the number back work. Giving to to just any young hot shot wouldn't work. For years it seemed like Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be that guy. He drove the No. 3 car in a Nationwide race at Daytona and won it, a few years ago. But the idea of Junior driving the 3 in the Cup Series petered out, as Earnhardt Jr. eventually said he wouldn't do it.
There's something powerful about that number and the man who made it famous, so powerful that Childress felt an obligation to get permission from Earnhardt Jr., his sister, Kelley, and the rest of the Earnhardt family before agreeing to run the number again, even at the Nationwide Series level.
Earnhardt Jr. gave his blessing to Dillon to drive the No. 3 car, and if it seems odd that such a blessing was needed, let me introduce you to NASCAR fans. They are as passionate as Alabama football fans, as obsessive as Kentucky basketball fans and as crazy as Boston Red Sox fans.
They hold tighter to the history of their sport than any other fan base except maybe baseball. They see the No. 3 as having a legacy worthy of protection, something that had to be earned, something sacred, like Dillon will have to genuflect before he climbs in each time.
It would just not be right, or so the thinking goes, to have some punk drive the No. 3 -- even though in his early years Earnhardt sometimes acted very much like a punk. His nickname, after all, was The Man in Black, not The Man who Respects His Elders. Even worse than a punk would be someone who doesn't care or know about the sport's history. Dillon has proven himself to be not a punk, and as Childress' grandson, he cares and knows about the sport's history.
This decision weighed heavily on Childress, and he has gone to great lengths to make sure it's done right, or as right as it can be. An official Twitter account with the handle "Cheerthe3" launched to promote it. Think about that -- a Twitter campaign to encourage cheering for a car number.
The announcement on Wednesday was years in the making. Since Dillon first hit the national NASCAR scene full time in 2010 in the trucks series, there has been talk that he would eventually graduate to the Sprint Cup Series, and that when he did, he would drive the No. 3 car. He seems to have said and done the right things all along as momentum built toward Wednesday's announcement.
Yet I still wonder if Dillon realizes what he's getting himself into.
Thirteen years after he died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, Earnhardt remains nearly as prominent as he was when he drove the No. 3. He has become more popular in death than he ever was in life. Fans forget that he was a villain -- The Man in Black, The Intimidator, a man who would run his grandma into the fence -- as a racer. He was loved, feared and respected, but he was also loathed, by some fans and competitors. But that's not who Dillon is replacing. He is replacing the myth, the iconic figure Earnhardt became in death.
It'll be impossible to live up to that, and no matter how much Dillon says he won't try, many fans will measure him against that standard. In a year or two or three, when it becomes normal again to see the No. 3 on the racetrack, NASCAR fans might ask themselves what all the fuss was about. They might ask themselves why they cared so deeply and passionately about who would drive that car. But I doubt it. Kevin Harvick replaced Earnhardt after he died and in 12 years arguably never fully outran the shadow he cast.
Dillon might well race against a myth for the rest of his career. That's a race he'll never win.
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