Friday night marked the 100th victory for the No. 3 in NASCAR. As monumental a moment as it was, this season the No. 3 has been the mark of controversy.
Old-school fans will always consider that number to be the one of their icon, the original blue-collar driver to take the sport to new heights, Dale Earnhardt. That loss has lingered for years in the eyes of many die-hard fans. The relationship to fans between the number and the driver goes in a way beyond the track, it goes to the relationship the driver had with people outside the sport.
When he was taken away, that aspect died.
Then along came Austin Dillon, who with the blessing of Richard Childress let him run the No. 3 his entire career, and he continued that into the Camping World Truck Series. Was there controversy in that series about the No. 3 returning, no, because in that series Earnhardt didn't drive the No. 3.
When the older Dillon made the move up to Nationwide, younger brother Ty took over the No. 3 in the trucks, and Austin now returned to the No. 3 in the second-tier circuit. There was some controversy, seeing as Earnhardt Jr. did earn two championships with that number.
But now, there's a possibility that Dillon could take that number to the top level...and the controversy begins.
At the Cup level, even 12 years after his death, fans still consider the No. 3 to be Earnhardt's number. Fathers that loved the sport in the 1980's when Earnhardt had Wrangler on the car showed sons and daughters that he was the one he cheered for, and they became Earnhardt fans when they got older, when the colors made him the "Man in Black" and the "Intimidator."
Today's fans sadly don't have as much experience of watching Earnhardt compete. Sure there were the finishes at Bristol, and his epic win at Talladega, but those are moments that everyone will remember. They never got to see Earnhardt compete against the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, and others.
Now a new generation is possibly going to associate the No. 3 with a new face, a new driver, and in a way a new family.
It possibly won't be a black No. 3 Chevrolet, the rumor and leaked photo is a yellow Cherrios SS, white number outlined in black. The number would be back on the track, but it would not be the same. It's not necessarily the number itself that is causing the mixed feelings, but more along the lines what the number means.
Like the Nationwide Series commercial indicated, it's a symbol of a legend, an icon, and possibly a legacy. Maybe that is why Dillon wants to run it at the Cup level, because that is the only number he's truly known to be representing him.
In his eyes, it's becoming his number. In NASCAR's eyes, the No. 3 is owned by Richard Childress, so he can do with the number as he pleases.
But in the fan's eyes, that is Earnhardt's number. That's the symbol of the "Intimidator" and no one else. To some, it's along the lines of a runner walking across the pitcher's mound on the way to the dugout, as it's an unwritten rule but one that shouldn't be broke. To the fans, Dillon running that number in a way erases part of the legacy of Earnhardt, because he would be running his number.
Feelings will be mixed if it happens, but if it does, there is nothing anyone can do but watch and see.