Thirteen years ago, on the final lap of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt, Sr crashed head first into the turn four wall. Working to block a train of drivers in pursuit of his drivers, Dale Jr and Michael Waltrip. The latter would go on to win his first Daytona 500 for his longtime friend and chief advocate. Earnhardt never finished the race and never saw his driver win. A tribute to the man and the effect he had on the NASCAR stands outside of turn four.
Car owners purchase the right to car numbers. Earnhardt's other longtime friend, Richard Childress, held the rights to Sr's easily marketable number 3. With it's trademark black design, the car and the man were inseparable. As a tribute to the driver and legions of loyal fans, Childress moved his Nationwide driver, Kevin Harvick, into the sponsor's seat but not the number. In the world of NASCAR fan loyalty, numbers mattered.
Though the number has been brought back out on occasion, noticeably last year with Jr driving, Childress had held to a promise that the number and the man were connected. That is until this season.
Today at Daytona, Childress's new Sprint Cup driver, Austin Dillion, will lead the first of two qualifying duals for Sunday's race to the start/finish line from the pole position. Dillion will be driving a Chevrolet with the iconic 3 on the doors and roof. The number has been resurrected.
It comes back in a new form. Different driver, different paint scheme, at least initially, and different sponsor, but the 3 is back. As with resurrection in its theological form, the bodily form points to a past presence but also to a new future. How much of the past does one hold on to in resurrection and how much needs to be let go? If our consciousness survives, then some part of our past is present. And today, the number 3, as it will on Sunday, will prompt the consciousness of racing fans. Dillion is not Earnhardt; he can't be. Other drivers have driven iconic numbers. 43 still makes circuits around racetracks all over the country. But rarely has such a number been put away as a tribute to a man only to make a reappearance with another driver.