Tuesday, May 11, 2010

COMMENTARY: It's Only A Number

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will pay tribute to his late father this July by driving a replica of Dale, Sr.’s legendary #3 Wrangler Chevrolet in NASCAR Nationwide Series competition at Daytona International Speedway.

And some people are pretty darned PO’ed about it.

Junior’s Daytona ride was unveiled recently on what would have been his father’s 59th birthday; the result of an unprecedented collaboration between JR Motorsports – which will supply the car -- Richard Childress Racing – which holds a copyright on the familiar #3 – and Teresa Earnhardt, who has the final say on all things Earnhardt Senior. Teresa, Junior and Kelley Earnhardt stood side-by-side at the unveiling; the first time the three have appeared together publically since the day NASCAR’s most popular driver announced that he would bolt Dale Earnhardt Inc., for Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. All three hailed the move for what it is; a tribute to the memory of the late, seven-time Sprint Cup champion.

Despite their unified stand, however, the internet message boards and satellite radio switchboards were almost instantly inundated with irate fans who someone viewed the move as an insult to the memory of their fallen hero.

“Nobody should EVER drive the #3 again,” said many, conveniently ignoring the fact that Earnhardt, Jr. drove the #3 in a pair of NASCAR Nationwide Series races in 2002, while Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, has been campaigning an almost identical, black #3 Chevrolet on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series all season.

“It’s an insult to his memory,” wailed others, amid widespread calls for NASCAR to forbid the tribute, or establish a new precedent by retiring Earnhardt’s #3 for all time.

"This was an idea that came up as a way to pay tribute to my dad," said an incredulous Earnhardt, Jr. in response to the criticism. "The Wrangler car is definitely in the Top 10 coolest cars that have ever been on the race track. A lot of people identify with it, and I can't think of a better way to honor my dad and celebrate his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame than to bring the Wrangler colors back with the No. 3 on the side. I think everybody knows I'm pretty careful about (my father’s legacy). It just seems like a reasonable opportunity and if there is ever a time to do it, this is one of those times."

Earnhardt said he opposes the idea of retiring numbers, calling the notion “ridiculous. The #3 meant a lot to Daddy and… to a lot of race fans, but there's some kid growing up that was never a Dale Earnhardt fan that drives the #3 and might want to be #3 all his life. To not give him that opportunity just ain't fair."

He also commented on the symbolism of him, his sister and their stepmother appearing publically for the first time in years, saying, "this day is all about my dad. He'd be happy about this.”

Kelley Earnhardt went a step further, saying, "If he was here, I'm pretty sure we'd all still be together ... Dale Jr. would have never left DEI."

"Me and Teresa always had a lot of respect for each other," said Dale, Jr. "Dad had a way of bringing everybody together. Everybody worked together for the good of my father."

Just like they’re doing now.

The tumult over Junior’s Daytona tribute is ill-conceived and distasteful, a knee-jerk reaction if there ever was one. The #3 did not make Dale Earnhardt who he was. In fact, just the opposite is true. Earnhardt made the #3.

NASCAR pioneers Joe Littlejohn, Herschel McGriff, Dick Rathmann, Paul Goldsmith, Tim Flock, Cotton Owens, Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Charlie Glotzback and Buck and Buddy Baker (among others) all spent considerable time behind the wheel of #3 entries in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Junior Johnson authored a Hall Of Fame driving career with #3 on his door, and Childress himself used it throughout his 12-year driving career. Ricky Rudd steered Childress’ #3 Chevrolet between Earnhardt’s two driving stints with RCR, proving beyond all doubt that the #3 had its own claim to fame, long before “The Intimidator” came along.

And for the record, Earnhardt did most of his racing in the minor leagues in a series of cars with his father’s traditional #8 on the doors, before winning the first of his seven Cup championships in – gasp – a #2 Wrangler-backed Chevrolet owned by Rod Osterlund.

The facts don’t lie. Dale Earnhardt was a champion with or without the #3 on his door. The #3 won championships with and without Earnhardt at the wheel. Numbers are nothing more than symbols; a splotch of paint (or these days, a hunk of vinyl) on the door of a race car. They have no more to do with success or failure than the color of the car, and nobody’s lobbying NASCAR to retire Goodwrench black or Petty blue.

Numbers are not heroes, the men who drive them are.

If this tribute is good enough for Richard Childress, Dale, Jr., Kelley and Teresa Earnhardt, it’s good enough for me. And it ought to be good enough for you, too.

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