DAYTONA BEACH — They will race at Daytona today, 500 miles, another Super Bowl to start another NASCAR season. But for the first time in 13 years, people will see something here, and in a Sprint Cup race, and it will matter.
The No. 3 will never not matter.
The last time the No. 3 was at a Daytona 500, it was into the wall in Turn 4. And Dale Earnhardt was gone, gone even as his drivers, Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr. — his heir apparent — raced home 1-2 in the 500, seemingly a storybook …
The last time the No. 3 was at a Daytona 500, there were medics crawling over it when it rolled to a stop, but it was too late. The last time the No. 3 was in a Daytona 500, crews drew a tarp over it when it was still on the track. It was the day the music died.
Now the 3 will ride again, on the pole for this 500, no less. The car isn’t all black, and the driver might seem a little green, 23-year-old Sprint Cup rookie Austin Dillon, the grandson of Dale Earnhardt’s good buddy, Richard Childress.
Childress and Earnhardt won six points titles together. They put an everlasting stamp on their game. Now Childress has reached down the family tree and put the 3 back in the sport’s top division.
It doesn’t belong on a museum wall.
It should be on a racetrack.
It rides again today.
Austin Dillon was in Victory Lane in 1998, a little kid in some of the photos being taken after Dale Earnhardt won his one and only Daytona 500. Austin Dillon wore No. 3 in T-ball as a kid, and everyone knew why. He was playing in the family barn in North Carolina when his grandfather’s friend died on the high banks. Austin Dillon was 11 at the time.
He drove the 3 as he climbed the NASCAR ranks, including the Nationwide Series, where he is the defending champ. But this is different. This will stir all sorts of emotions for all sorts of people. Some will like it. Some won’t. The No. 3 has never truly left Daytona. It’s everywhere, on people’s shirts, on the flags that flap from motor homes in the infield.
“Don’t ever believe time heals all wounds, because it doesn’t,” Michael Waltrip said.
But he said this, too, about the 3:
“I’m happy that it’s back. Most of the time, when I think of Dale, it makes me smile. And seeing that car out there is going to make me smile.”
Not everyone wants the 3 back. They want it entombed, under glass, preserved.
But talk to the driver of the 88 car. He’ll set you straight.
“I feel good with it,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think it’s great for Richard and Austin. A grandson and grandfather being able to come together and do something like that with a number that’s been in their family for so many years. I’ve known (Austin) a long time and known Richard forever.”
“The legend of Dale has gone on for a long time, and it’s going to continue to live on forever,” Austin Dillon said. “Dale was a hero in everybody’s mind. He’s going to fly here forever.”
The 3’s return won’t make people forget Dale Earnhardt. Nor will it ease all the pain from that day. Maybe the old guard, the loyal 3 fans, will bristle a bit. Or maybe they’ll take to the 3 again, and scream when someone dares wreck it. There will be all those emotions mixed together. Around and around they’ll go today.
The 3 rides again, at the Daytona 500, 13 years after that tarp was pulled over it, the worst day in NASCAR history.
“That’s part of me,” said Waltrip, whose first 500 win remains bittersweet. “But as a car owner now, if I’m going into Turn 4 on the last lap of the Daytona 500, and my cars are getting ready to go 1-2, and you take me off this Earth, I’m pretty damn sure I’d have a pretty big smile on my face as I leave. As I get older, smiling when you’re leaving has got to be pretty cool. I know Dale was very happy at what he was looking at before the tragedy occurred. That helps me deal with it a bit. When I see the 3, it will just make me smile.”
He won’t be alone.