I’ll have to admit, I was a little skeptical when I first heard that Austin Dillon, and Richard Childress Racing would be bringing back the No.3 car formerly driven by Dale Earnhardt Sr, for the 2014 NASCAR season. It would be like having a ghost running around the track each week, and a stark reminder of that day in 2001 when The Intimidator died in turn four at Daytona International Speedway.
Then I realized that it has been 13 years, and many of NASCAR’s newer fans either weren’t born, or weren’t around in the days when the “Mr. Goodwrench” Chevrolet was racing on a week-by-week basis.
For instance, how many fans today remember that in 2001, it was The Winston Cup Series, There was no Race For The Chace, and the season’s final race was held at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The COT Car had not been released, teams were still running Pontiac’s, and Jimmie Johnson had not yet run his first Sprint Cup race.
So when Austin Dillon put the black number three on the pole at Daytona last week, I’m sure only a fraction of the fans, like myself, felt the hair stand up on the back off their necks, and had a mild case of goosebumps.
The first thing that came to my mind, was can this kid handle the legacy, and ghosts that he was disturbing. Even Dale Jr wanted not part of this scenario.
Today we have Junior Nation, which is a large of Army of fans who live and die by what NASCAR’s “Most Popular Driver” does on the race track every week, but are they as ravenous as the fans in the past who bought the black tee shirts, beer coolers, and hats? Truth is, they are just extensions of the legacy left behind by Dale Earnhardt Sr.
I attended the 1997 Season finale’ at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1997 where Bobby Labonte shared Victory Lane with Jeff Gordon on a raw 46 degree day. The early part of the race saw a fierce battle between The Intimidator, and the #22 driven by Ward Burton.
Somewhere around lap 50, Dale got loose in turn one, and hit the wall coming out of turn two, and his day was over(they didn’t have safer barriers yet). 35,000 of the 140,000 fans who were in attendance got up and left.
I asked a fan who was gathering up his stuff and preparing to leave, where he was going? He said” our man’s out of the race, we’re taking it to the house”. I reminded him there was a lot of racing left, and he informed me that “Dale was out, the race was over”.
So the ghost that will ride with the 23 year-old grandson of Richard Childress every week is huge. I just hope the youngster can stand up to the test that his character will have in the 2014 season.
The thing we have to remember as fans, is that the Black No.3 we are seeing on the track is a Rookie on the Sprint Cup circuit. Our minds see that Black No.3 running around the track, and it wants to see some of the magic that its former driver could perform on a race track. It’s not going to happen.
Austin Dillon will have to pay his dues, drive with the yellow stripe on his bumper, and make all of the mistakes a rookie who is competing with some of the best drivers in the world is going to make. As fans we need to give the youngster some time to learn his trade the same way his predecessor did, on the track.
Austin Dillon made some rookie mistakes in his first race at Daytona on Sunday, but was able to bring it home with a top ten finish in 9th place. The finish came at the expense of Kyle Larson, and a few others, but hey, he’s a rookie, and…that’s racing!
You can follow Les on Twitter @Spin_47