Obviously these days the #3 is driven by Austin Dillon for Richard Childress Racing, but the number will always be remembered for the Dale Earnhardt‘s 17 years piloting the car in NASCAR’s top series.
After Earnhardt’s passing, the team chose to change the car’s number to 29 when Kevin Harvick was tapped to fill the seat. And from 2001 through 2013, the number remained on the shelf and out of the NASCAR Cup Series.
But in 2014, when car owner Richard Childress was getting ready to put his grandson Austin Dillon into a Cup Series ride, he decided to bring back the iconic #3 for Dillon’s car.
It was a decision that brought out a lot of strong feelings among NASCAR fans, many of whom thought the number should be permanently retired.
But Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., didn’t have a problem with his dad’s number being brought back.
Junior revealed on his podcast, The Dale Jr. Download, that Richard Childress talked to him and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, before bringing the #3 out of retirement:
“A long time ago, Richard was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna run the 3 again.’
He called Kelley, he called me, and we’re like, ‘Great. Austin should be able to do what he wants. It’s your car, you own the number.’ We were all for it.”
But now that the number has been back on the track for nearly a decade, he does wish Childress would make one change to the look of the #3 car – as well as the #8, which belongs to Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing teammate Kyle Busch:
“In my opinion, with the 3 and Kyle, I just would really appreciate if they would retire that font, that trademark. Retire it, nobody runs it.”
His reasoning, though, isn’t exactly what you may think. According to Dale, having Austin run the #3 car with the same font as his dad makes it confusing for Dale when he sees somebody with #3 merch – because he’s not sure if they’re a fan of his dad, or Austin Dillon.
“One thing I didn’t think about was, now when I see a #3 flag in a yard or a license plate or whatever, I’m like, ‘I’m only 80% sure that’s a Dale Earnhardt fan.’
I’m only 80, 90% sure they’re cheerin’ for dad, and I kind of feel ok about it, but not 100%. And man, I used to ride around going, ‘Hell yeah man, there’s a freakin’ Earnhardt fan right there, woo buddy! Wanna high five this guy!’
Every time you saw it you’re like, ‘Damn right man, keep it alive, keep the dream alive.’ And so now, you know, I’m not so sure.”
Now, I think Dale’s logic might be a little off base here. Chances are, if somebody’s an Austin Dillon fan, it’s because they were fans of the #3 when Earnhardt drove the car. I feel sure that anybody wearing a #3 shirt, or flying a #3 flag, isn’t doing it because of Austin Dillon but because of the legend associated with the number.
But still, I definitely see where he’s coming from. The iconic #3 was always a way to recognize his dad’s fans – and now that another driver has the same number, with the same look and font, it’s no longer JUST Dale’s number.
Imagine getting the call that you’re the guy who’s going to have to replace Dale Earnhardt.
Now imagine getting that call as a 25-year old who’s never even started a race in NASCAR’s top series.
That was the situation Kevin Harvick found himself in back in 2001 when the Intimidator was tragically killed during a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
These days Harvick is a Cup Series champion, and one of the longest-tenured drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series. But at the start of the 2001 season, Kevin was an up-and-coming driver in NASCAR’s Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) for Richard Childress Racing.
He was also one of the team’s test drivers, and he would often drive Dale Earnhardt’s #3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet at team tests – because the Intimidator hated testing.
While running for the Busch Series championship, Harvick was scheduled to make his Winston Cup Series debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the 4th race of the season.
But all that abruptly changed on February 18th, 2001.
After Earnhardt was killed, it was Kevin Harvick who was asked to step up and drive the most famous car in the sport, and in the process put himself right in the middle of one of the most emotional situations that NASCAR has ever seen.
There were tributes to Dale at every race, and Dale’s former team suddenly became Harvick’s team, along with all the emotions that they were struggling to process in the aftermath.
It was an impossible situation for any driver, much less a 25-year old who had never turned a lap in a Cup Series race.
But Kevin Harvick was the man for the job.
The rookie stepped into the newly-renumbered #29 car and won in just his third career Cup Series start at Atlanta Motor Speedway, in one of the greatest storylines in NASCAR history. There were tears as Harvick held three fingers out the window during his victory lap. It was a healing moment for the sport as Dale’s car would once again drive to victory lane.
And as Harvick gears up to return to Atlanta for the final time this weekend following his announcement that he would retire at the end of the 2023 season, his Stewart-Haas Racing team is looking back on Harvick’s first win and all the emotions of that moment.
Harvick’s wife DeLana recalls Kevin getting the call late in the evening that he was needed for a meeting at the race shop. And when he got home, he had some big news: He was going to drive Dale Earnhardt’s car.
But Harvick made one thing clear: He wasn’t replacing Dale Earnhardt.
During his introductory press conference, Harvick addressed the expectations that come with stepping into Earnhardt’s car:
“You know, Dale Earnhardt was probably the best race car driver there ever’s going to be in NASCAR, and nobody will ever replace him, and I think we all know that. So I would hope that you guys don’t expect me to replace him because nobody ever will.”
According to Dale Earnhardt Jr., Harvick was the right guy to step in for his dad:
“Luckily it was Kevin that was the driver that was chosen to handle that situation, because his frame of mind and his ability to bite his tongue and buckle down and just stay the course – you know, he had the fortitude and the toughness mentally and emotionally to manage that difficult situation, where I don’t know that a lot of people would have been able to do it.”
And after he won the race at Atlanta, Junior says that it proved Kevin was the right man for the job:
“Kevin winning that race at Atlanta was incredible for Kevin, because I feel like that he stepped into a race car where there’s a ton of expectation and he was filling an impossible void, one that I probably couldn’t even fill.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be put in that situation that he was in, even with the name and everything and the connection that would have made perfect sense, I wouldn’t have wanted to have to do what he did.
For him to go to the racetrack and win, it added a lot of credibility to Kevin as, ‘Hey man, this guy was chosen and this is why.’
And boy, RCR and everybody there looks really smart for making that decision.
And of course the win and the process of healing and everything that was going on with the team, all that was great. But for Kevin, that just couldn’t have been more perfect. He needed to prove to everybody that he could do the job, and so he goes out there and does that at a very fast rate.”
Harvick definitely proved that he could do the job. He won one more race that first season, finishing in the top 10 in points standings despite not racing in the season-opening Daytona 500.
He also won the 2014 Cup Series championship during an incredible run of 12 straight season finishing inside the top 10 in the final points standings.
NASCAR’s definitely not going to be the same without Kevin Harvick on the track every week, but he was the right man to step into an impossible situation during the sport’s darkest hour.
And with that, Harvick has cemented his legacy among the NASCAR greats.