How do we associate drivers with their cars? Is it their sponsors, their nicknames, the car they drive?
More than likely, it's the car number. It's easy to remember and can often be recognized by everyone. There are some numbers that even though someone else is driving, it's associated with the driver that made it famous.
Look at the No. 43 of Richard Petty. That is his number and we all recognize that. How about the No. 17. Sure it's with Matt Kenseth, but the old-school fans always remember the "Tide Ride" of Darrell Waltrip.
What number do all generations remember? What number can be associated with NASCAR that just emulates what the sport is about?
That is the No. 3.
It doesn't matter what car the fans cheer, what driver they support, or what colors they wear at the track. When it comes to the No. 3, every fan of every age recognizes who drove it and what it represents.
The No. 3 will always represent Dale Earnhardt.
Even now, over nine years since his untimely death the No. 3 has not been associated with any other name. However, since his death has Earnhardt's number become both magical and mysterious in NASCAR?
Consider this, when Earnhardt had his unfortunate accident in the 2001 Daytona 500 he was running in the third position. And it was the third turn when all the action started taking place.
That day many believed the No. 3 had seen it's last race. Starting with the next race at Rockingham, Earnhardt's number soon took on an almost magical power.
Steve Park won that next race at Rockingham, which was the first team Earnhardt started with his new company, DEI. It was the third year for that team competing in NASCAR competition with Park behind the wheel full-time.
Two weeks later Kevin Harvick took Earnhardt's old team and old car to victory lane in Atlanta. Some fans believe the race was won from above, as if a higher power was driving the car to victory.
Harvick won in his third start. The race was the fourth of the season, with Harvick in the No. 29. He started fifth and won the race.
Those numbers put side by side would read 4-29-51, the birthday of Earnhardt.
When NASCAR returned to Daytona it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. putting the Earnhardt name back in victory lane, vindicating what was lost that February. That night the son of the No. 3 went to victory.
Junior would then go on to win three consecutive races at Talladega, the track where his father had his most success. It was in 2000 when Earnhardt went from 18th to first in just three laps.
Coincidence or magic?
In 2002 Junior got an opportunity many thought would never happen. He got the chance to race his father's number at Daytona. It may have been for a Nationwide race but an Earnhardt behind the wheel of the No. 3 at Daytona meant something special to everyone.
Junior won that race at Daytona, putting the No. 3 back in victory lane. His first race in three years driving the No. 3 in the Nationwide Series and he won.
Mysterious or mystical?
In 2004, three years after his father lost his life in the biggest race of the season Junior went on to win his first Daytona 500. Three races later he went back to victory lane in Atlanta.
It began to seem as though Earnahrdt's number was gaining some kind of power. It couldn't be explained and left all wondering what was next.
This year when Junior announced that for one time, one last time, he would drive the No. 3 in honor of his father, we fans ate it up. No other driver would do when it came to racing the No. 3 at Daytona.
It would be the first time in over eight years that the No. 3 would have an Earnhardt behind the wheel. Could that magic return or had it been buried in the years that passed?
After 100 laps we all had an answer.
Junior and the Wrangler Chevrolet started third. When the fans held up three fingers on the third lap of the race that car went to the front of the pack for the first time.
At the end of the night the third time was the charm as the No. 3 went back to victory lane in Junior's third race driving his dad's number.
That race ultimately would be the last time Junior would drive that number in NASCAR.
He made it crystal clear, he's done with the No. 3. It's a fitting way for his run in his father's number to end. The first time he ran it after his death, he went to victory lane. The final time, he won yet again.
There's no other reason to have Junior run it again. He doesn't want to and Richard Childress himself said there's no plans to do it again. What's done is done, and it's put to rest.
It's one of those things in NASCAR that is simply unexplainable. That number since the passing of Earnhardt has just been magic for the sport.
Is it really magic? Possibly.
Is it one of those mysteries that will go unsolved? Most likely.
Should we try and figure out why the No. 3 is so mystical? For many people, that answer is no. It's best to know that the mystical powers of that number has meant nothing but good for NASCAR.
I know there's one person that has an answer to why that number has been magical. Unfortunately, he's not here to give an explanation.
He's looking down, most likely with a large pair of sunglasses covering his blue eyes. Underneath his mustache a smile is bright and wide as he looks over the joy he's brought to so many.
Heroes don't die, they are just slowly woven in to the fabrics of history.
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