Tom Bowles
Thursday September 3rd, 2009

A small news story has me thinking big things about NASCAR this week. And to think, it all revolves around something as simple as a number.

Saturday in Iowa, the No. 3 once used by the late Dale Earnhardt will return to the track for the first time in NASCAR's Truck Series. Still the property of legendary car owner Richard Childress, the car will be driven by his grandson, 19-year-old Austin Dillon, as he continues preparing for what they hope will be a full-time Nationwide Series slate in 2010.

Out of respect for Earnhardt, Childress has never run the number since the tragic death of the NASCAR legend in February 2001. However, eight years later, the possibility exists it'll make a return should Dillon ever be good enough for the sport's top level. Childress once said he could never see anyone but an Earnhardt behind the wheel of the No. 3, but time could prove otherwise.

That potential situation is still two, three years off, at least, as Dillon continues to get his feet wet in lower divisions. But it still brings up an important question: should the number be used again in the first place?

Unlike the four major sports, NASCAR has never retired a number from competition. Even when surefire Hall of Famer "The King" Richard Petty stepped out of his No. 43 car in 1992, the number changed to No. 44 for just one year before his old number was back on track with Wally Dallenbach, Jr. Of course, in that case, Petty himself was behind the changeover; retaining ownership in the team after stepping out of the driver's seat, it's his prerogative to run whatever he wants. His No. 43 has been racing under the Petty banner ever since, with Reed Sorenson behind the wheel of the car this season.

But what happens when Petty steps away from the sport? Would fans be as comfortable if someone else owned the No. 43 after Petty won a series-leading 200 races? The survey says probably not. Loyalty runs deeper in this sport than in most, with ties that bind long after a favorite son's driving days are over. Nowhere is that attachment more poignant than with Earnhardt himself, who still ranked sixth out of all drivers in souvenir sales at the end of 2008 (according to NASCAR.com's Superstore), over seven years after his last race. With Earnhardt's son set to win the Most Popular Driver award for the seventh straight year, unwavering support for the Earnhardt name still draws millions of fans to NASCAR.

So with the sport's Hall of Fame opening up next year, perhaps there's no better time to revisit the issue of retiring numbers, putting Earnhardt's at the top of the list. With the "Intimidator" a surefire bet to make the Hall by 2011, perhaps there's no higher tribute to give the only man to match Petty's seven Cup championships than to retire his No. 3 at NASCAR tracks across the country. With 76 victories spread across every major speedway and a driving style and off-track presence unlike any other, it's a deserving honor for a man who exemplified the sport's blue-collar roots.

Certainly, the sport would have to come up with strict rules and discretion for retiring numbers in the process: after all, there are only 110 two-digit ones to use (NASCAR allows the use of Nos. 00 through 09). But just as there were certain criteria that separated the 25 finalists for the Hall announced this June, the right choices can be made to ensure a retired number is reserved for the truly special. In baseball, we have Jackie Robinson's number universally retired, and that seems to work just fine for all.

When I passed through Citi Field in New York for a Mets game just a few weeks back, it was hard not to notice the crowd around the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. It's easy to forget it's now over 60 years since Robinson played his first game in Major League Baseball, with two generations at risk of never even knowing his name. Yet with a giant No. 42 in the center of it all, children everywhere who knew nothing about one of the most important men in baseball history were learning of his importance, taking their pictures and continuing to memorialize a man whose contribution to the sport rings eternal.

The Hall of Fame is one thing, but recognizing such historical significance on a national scale is truly special. Let's hope NASCAR starts giving the idea some consideration once again.

With Erik Darnell replacing Bobby Labonte for seven of the final 12 races, just three drivers currently 40 or older are guaranteed fully-funded Cup rides for 2010: Robby Gordon, Jeff Burton, and Mark Martin. More than ever, NASCAR has become a young man's sport.

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Another blow to the "old guard" this week: 67-year-old Morgan Shepherd announced Wednesday he's laid off nearly his entire Nationwide Series team, with no money in the bank to race beyond Atlanta on Saturday. Once a successful Cup driver (four career wins), Shepherd started the modern-day "start-and-park" craze several years ago, pulling his Truck, Nationwide, and Cup cars into the garage before the first pit stop because he didn't have the money to buy tires for a full race. Now, almost a decade later he's trying to run the distance, but in a touch of irony he's failing to qualify while up to a dozen other teams who make the race follow his lead and pull their cars in early.

It's a tough way to go out, but don't be surprised if his team stays afloat through the end of the season. Drivers Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart have a soft spot for a man who runs "Victory In Jesus" on the hood each week, and have provided him with equipment and financial support.

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With an announcement Wednesday that Jeff Burton's crew chief, Scott Miller, will move to a management role next season, that means three of the four RCR cars will have different head wrenches in February 2010 compared to this time last year. Only the new team combo of Clint Bowyer and Shane Wilson remains intact in what's been a nightmare year for an organization that put all its cars in the Chase in 2007 and '08.

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