Waltrip: Revived No. 3 'tribute' to Earnhardt
December 11, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Full coverage of RCR '3' announcement
When he sees the No. 3 car driven by Austin Dillon roll onto the race track next season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Darrell Waltrip will be thinking of one person -- Dale Earnhardt.
And the three-time NASCAR champion and Hall of Famer doesn't think he'll be alone.
"I think when I see that 3 car on the track, and I see Austin driving it, it's a Childress car, it's going to bring back all kinds of Dale Earnhardt memories -- the fun things he did, the crazy things he did, whether it was rattling someone's cage or driving off to victory in the Daytona 500," said Waltrip, who won 84 races and is now an analyst for FOX television. "Those will just be great memories."
Richard Childress Racing has announced that Dillon will compete next year at NASCAR's highest level in a No. 3 car, returning that numeral to competition in the Cup Series for the first time since Earnhardt's final race more than 12 years ago. It's a decision sure to stir strong emotions on either side, among those who believe the number should be forever set aside, and others who believe it's been on the shelf long enough.
As a former rival to Earnhardt on the race track and now NASCAR's foremost television analyst, Waltrip can understand both arguments. But to him, the return of the No. 3 doesn't diminish Earnhardt's legacy -- rather, it's a tribute to all the Intimidator achieved, on and off the track.
"There's a lot of emotion involved with that number and that team," Waltrip said. "I've always felt like I'm not a fan of returning numbers. I think a number like the 3 -- or even the 28, a number we don’t see anymore -- I think they're tributes.
"Dale was such an icon. But I think it's time to bring it back. We see it in the Camping World Truck Series, we see it in the Nationwide Series, and I think it's time to bring it back to the Cup Series. I think it's really going to generate some excitement."
Earnhardt won six of his seven championships in RCR's No. 3, a number that's gone unused in the sport's top series since his fatal crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. But Childress also drove a No. 3 car for six years during his days as a driver and owner, and his best-career finish -- third at Nashville in 1978 -- came in that car. When his grandsons Austin and Ty Dillon began their racing careers, they chose the family number for their vehicles.
Austin drove the No. 3 back to prominence at the national level first in the Camping World Truck Series, where he capped his two-year run with a championship, and then with a pair of strong campaigns on the Nationwide tour, including this year's championship. Throughout it all he's displayed a reverence toward the number and its legacy, something not lost on Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has given his blessing to Dillon's use of the No. 3.
Waltrip can see why. "I think that if that number was going to be used again, it's Childress' number. Childress drove the 3 car. It belongs to the Childress family. And I think having his grandson drive the 3 car, I think it's going to be exiting," he said during an appearance on behalf of M&Ms.
"I think it's something the sport needs to bring back some of those kinds of things, those elements of excitement, and I think Austin is the right guy to do it. He's a great kid, he'll be a great representative, he's respectful of the sport, he understands the importance of the number, and I think he’ll do a really good job of representing the memory of Dale Earnhardt."
And the memory of Dale Earnhardt, Waltrip added, isn't going away just because someone else will soon be driving the car number he made famous. If anything, the three-time champion believes reviving the No. 3 at NASCAR's highest level will revive Earnhardt's legacy as well.
"The memory of Dale Earnhardt, it's with us. We talk about Dale every day. I do as a former competitor, I do as a broadcaster, race fans talk about Dale. We see commercials, for heaven's sake, right now, with the image of Dale Earnhardt standing on pit road, and Jimmie Johnson walking by," Waltrip said.
"Dale Earnhardt has left a long-lasting impression upon this sport. I just believe that if you have a 3 jacket you've been saving, you can bring it out and wear it again. I just think from a fan's perspective, even if some of them don’t want to see it on the track anymore, I think once they get over that, they'll be excited about it. I think it's a very, very wise move -- not only a wise move for Childress, but also for the sport."