Attachment to numbers not new in sports

Commentary: With the No. 3 returning to NASCAR, many people have expressed feelings about what the number means to them and if it should be back

Published: December 19 2013 | 7:01 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:06 am in
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What’s in a number?

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a sports fan. Chances are you competed in some sport at one time or another in your life. Chances are, when the time came to pick a jersey, there was a specific one you wanted.

Chances are there’s a number that means a whole lot to you for a myriad of reasons.

On Dec. 11, Austin Dillon was introduced as the driver of the No. 3 Dow Chemical/Cheerios Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing in the Sprint Cup Series.

This wouldn’t be a big deal in any other sport. In football, basketball, hockey or soccer, the choice of a number would be a blip on the radar. But I’d venture to guess you know why this announcement was such a big deal in the NASCAR world.

When Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the iconic, slanted No. 3 disappeared.

Fans clung to the No. 3 as a symbol of the man they revered and loved like a member of their family. For the rest of the 2001 season (many still to this day), fans in the stands and TV broadcasts fell silent and raised three fingers on the third lap of every race to honor the fallen legend.

As the years passed, the devotion to the number only intensified. And when Dillon – Childress’ grandson – was tabbed to bring the No. 3 back to the Cup series for the first time since Feb. 18, 2001, a great many fans took to the internet to share their displeasure.

Let me be clear: that reaction is understandable, but a bit shortsighted.

A great many of us have an attachment to a number. For me, it’s the No. 10. My dad ran that number in his racing days, and I did the same. Whenever I had the chance in other sports, No. 10 was the number I picked. Even my Twitter handle (@jeremiahdavis10) features the digits.

So loving the No. 3 and feeling like it can never be separated from Earnhardt is understandable.

But remember that Dillon has an attachment to a number, too. He’s been racing since childhood and all through that time, ran No. 3. From go-karts to late models to the Camping World Trucks and Nationwide Series, Austin has honored the number his grandfather ran when he was a driver himself.

In NASCAR, unlike other sports, the numbers belong to owners, not drivers, so the number never really belonged to Earnhardt anyway. In fact, Earnhardt’s chosen number was No. 8, after his dad. Before sponsors asked him to run No. 3 for brand recognition, Earnhardt put No. 8 on all cars he owned and drove himself outside the Cup series.

The No. 3 is as much Dillon’s as anyone else’s.

So what’s in a number?

It could be nothing and could be everything. Regardless of an individual’s answer to that question, it’s not fair to project our attachments in a way that limits someone else’s.

The No. 10 means a great deal to me. The No. 8 meant a lot to Dale Earnhardt. The No. 3 means a great deal to Austin Dillon. And since NASCAR doesn’t retire numbers, the No. 3 – along with No. 43, No. 24 and No. 48 – is fair game.

It’s Dillon’s turn to wear it, and make it his own.

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