Richard Childress Racing
ESPN.com: The 3 is Back, and That is Good
December 13, 2013
Richard Childress knows that he can't make everyone happy. But he's going to try.
As the covers were pulled off of the race cars that Austin Dillon will drive in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2014, the first to use the famous slanted "3" on their doors since the death of Dale Earnhardt, the look on the face of the man who owns those cars wasn't nervousness. It wasn't anxiousness. It wasn't sadness or even relief. You see, he's already run a 13-year obstacle course of those feelings, over and over and over again.
No, as Childress took a step back and scanned that black-and-white Dow Chemical Chevy, a race car that looked so classic and yet so new all at once, his expression was that of a man filled to the brim with pure excitement.
Now he's hoping that everyone else will eventually join him in that same excitement. But he knows that will never happen.
"There's no way we can ever make 100 percent of everybody happy by the decisions that we make concerning the No. 3," he said following the announcement, when it was just him, the race cars, and the team left in the once-crowded Charlotte Motor Speedway auditorium. "But I also know that the attitude among the fans has really changed. Years ago, after Dale died, so many of them told us we could never bring back the 3.
"Now most of the folks we hear from have been asking when it was coming back. There's still that 5 percent who don't ever want it to come back. Maybe we can win them over one day, too."
As the sun rose Wednesday morning, about six hours before the news conference, I had tested those waters myself. I tweeted a simple question: "Today they announce the 3 returns … How do we feel about that?" To my surprise, but as Childress would later confirm, the vast majority of the responses essentially said, "Yes, it's time" or "Yes, I'm ready now."
But yes, the holdouts are still there. They worry about disrespecting Earnhardt's memory. They worry about how they will react emotionally when they see that No. 3 roll through that fourth turn at Daytona. And they worry that Dillon, 23 years old with only 13 career Cup Series starts, hasn't done enough to deserve the honor of wearing that digit on his door.
I get those points of view. I respect them. As a race fan, someone who knew Earnhardt, and someone who started covering the sport at the peak of his legend, I too have wrestled with those same issues.
But then I look at the face of Richard Childress and see, finally, a happy man. No matter how big a Dale Earnhardt fan you might be, you weren't a bigger Earnhardt fan than Childress.
No matter how much you cried after Earnhardt's death, you didn't cry as much as Childress. And no matter how much you may have stressed, struggled and lost sleep over the future of Earnhardt's number and legacy, you have no idea how many sleepless nights it has caused Childress. The first of which took place on Feb. 18, 2001.
That was the night after Earnhardt's death. When he stood on a floating dock in Daytona at the home of NASCAR president Mike Helton and decided, to hell with it all, he was getting out of racing altogether. It had killed friends before. Now it had killed his best friend. He was done.
But then he remembered a conversation by a campfire seven years earlier. A horrible horse riding accident during a hunting trip in New Mexico had nearly killed Childress and Earnhardt both. That night they made a promise to one another that if one of them ever died, even if it was in a race car, that the other would keep going.
So, when Earnhardt was gone, Childress kept his promise and kept going. But not before shelving the No. 3 (he took 29 only because it was the next one available that was closest to his other car number) until the time was right to bring it back. "If," he's often said to me, "that time ever comes."
Now it has.
Childress knows that the time has finally come because Dillon, his grandson who came to "Pop-Pop" as a teenager and asked to run the number, has worked his way up the ladder to NASCAR's top series, winning races and championships all along the way.
He knows that the time has finally come because he has heard from every member of the Earnhardt family with their blessing. In fact, whenever they've wanted to use the number in their own racing, it was Childress they called to ask for permission.
He knows that the time has finally come because on Wednesday he stood at the podium, looked around the room, and saw the faces of an ever-shrinking fraternity, the people who worked alongside Childress and Earnhardt when they ruled the sport. Men like Don Hawk, who ran Earnhardt's business interests; J.R. Rhodes, who was Earnhardt's public relations rep; and Chocolate Myers, lifelong gas-can man of Earnhardt's "Flying Aces" pit crew. To a man, they nodded and smiled with their approval.
But most of all, he knows that it's time to revive the No. 3 because of another one of the conversations that he had with Earnhardt. Actually, it was a series of conversations, many of which also took place by a campfire.
"We had so many talks about the future of Richard Childress Racing and his team [Dale Earnhardt Incorporated]," Childress said. "We talked about his family and my family and where they all might fit in one day. But, man, we talked so much about the No. 3. What I might do with it one day. Who might drive it when he was retired … "
Then Childress started to beam. The kind of smile he used to sport on a regular basis back when Dale was still around. The smile that had vanished for so long.
"I'm just so excited," he said. "There's an excitement at the race shop. I think about Dale being here for this and I just know he'd be excited, too. Over the years I've worried so much over doing the right things to keep this team up front and doing all that I can to grow Dale's legacy. This does both.
"So many nights I've lain in bed awake and prayed for guidance to make the right decisions. I know Dale's helping me out. And I know he's looking down and watching today and he's seeing that 3 on that race car and he's excited, too."
That's good enough for me. It should be good enough for everyone.
To read Ryan McGee's complete article as it appears on ESPN.com click here.