To #3 or not to #3 – that is the question

Hmmm… this one seems to be generating a significant amount of traffic.

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The black #3 of Dale Earnhardt – The Intimidator – remains the most recognisable livery in NASCAR. Alongside Richard Petty’s powder blue #43 it’s one of the enduring icons of top-flight stock car racing and, to millions of people, it has been frozen in time since Earnhardt Sr. met his end at the 2001 Daytona 500.

Now the Richard Childress Racing outfit, with whom Earnhardt and the #3 are inextricably bound, plans to bring that iconic number back to NASCAR’s top level with its young charger, Austin Dillon. This is sparking a LOT of debate among fans. Although many people would be happy to see it back, there’s a vocal lobby – presumably those who have been standing up with three fingers aloft on Lap 3 at the Daytona 500 each and every year.

Outside the USA we don’t tend to sentimentalise numbers. There’s never been any fuss about who carries the #2 in Formula One, despite the virtual canonisation of Ayrton Senna since his death. Or the #19 in sports car racing, carried to his doom by the most electrifying driver of his kind, Stefan Bellof.

Outside NASCAR only the #27 in Formula One has really held – or rather grown – in resonance, since the death of its most famous driver, Gilles Villeneuve. And these days that’s a redundant number in a field of 24 cars, so it’s no longer an issue. In NASCAR, however, the numbers are franchises in themselves. The champion driver doesn’t win the honour of carrying #1. He wins a lot of money and his number becomes better known – and more valuable.

There’s been a widespread misunderstanding that the #3 belongs to Richard Childress Racing and that the team has held the number in some sort of shrine to The Intimidator at the back of the workshop. It doesn’t and it hasn’t.

Teams lease their numbers from NASCAR for a set fee each year. Following the death of Dale Earnhardt, RCR chose not to retain the #3 – putting #29 on the Goodwrench Chevy when it returned in 2001, the number which its driver, Kevin Harvick, has retained ever since (often with a small ‘tribute 3’ next to the large race number).

Yet the #3 has not been silent since February 2001. Far from it. Dale Earnhardt Jr ran the number on his Nationwide cars until 2002. Items carrying #3 outsell virtually all the currently active numbers in terms of NASCAR merchandise and, in 2010, RCR and NASCAR gave the fans exactly what they wanted when Dale Earnhardt Jr climbed aboard an Impala carrying blue and yellow Wrangler sponsorship (as his father’s often did, alongside the black Goodwrench car) and the #3. And won. At Daytona.

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Part of me thinks that this was a toe-in-the-water. A chance to test the public, give the #3 some good vibrations and open the path for a full-time return. Which has now come. Richard Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillon, has shown a hefty amount of talent, winning the 2011 Camping World Truck Series and running at the front of the Nationwide Series – at the wheel of the RCR #3.

ImageDillon has now taken his first win in the Nationwide series and looks set to become a regular in the top league before long – and it’s pretty much a given that he will bring the #3 back up with him. And so the debate goes on: should #3 be brought back or finally retired out of respect for The Intimidator?

Personally, I’d say that RCR is a business and that Earnhardt’s chosen legacy would be the ongoing success of the team that supported him. In what remain hard times for racing, NASCAR teams only thrive if they can grow. RCR has the #27, #29 and #31 but has lost the #33 through the shortage of funds available these days.

A bright young talent at the wheel of the iconic #3 might well do good things for RCR – and in turn for the popularity – and profitability – of NASCAR. Sometimes, race fans, sentiment needs to be saved for when we can afford it.

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Kurt Busch: which way now?

He’s been the pixie-eared prince of pandemonium for as long as I’ve been following NASCAR, and now Kurt Busch is being sent to the naughty step. Again.

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It could be said that things look a little gloomy for the 2004 Nextel Cup champion.

In case you missed the story (!), Busch got himself on probation after a feisty afternoon with former team-mate Ryan Newman in the Nationwide race at Darlington a couple of weeks back. With 6 laps remaining, Busch got a puncture, collected Newman in the ensuing melee and then let it be known that he felt aggrieved by his former friend.

At least that was the impression he gave by doing a burnout by Newman’s pit stall on the way back to the track and then driving into his car when they returned to the pits after the race.

Later, Newman said: “It’s easy to say that Kurt blew a fuse again. I’m not sure why he did it and tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials. And nobody is. I think the chemical imbalance speaks for itself.”

NASCAR agreed: fining Busch $50,000 and putting him on probation until July 25 for reckless driving on pit road during the race and for being involved in an altercation with another competitor after the completion of the race.

No mention of chemical imbalances – but then Ryan’s got a lot more qualifications than most racing folk.

Last weekend the Nationwide series returned to action at Dover and, after another frenetic dose of action, Busch sought out Justin Allgaier to have a quiet word about his on-track behaviour. This was like a red rag to the media posse, and after his colleagues had gingerly skirted around the subject Bob Pockrass, a reporter with Sporting News, finally waded in to ask Busch if being on probation had moderated his confrontation with Allgaier at all.

Busch replied: “It refrains me from beating the s*** out of you right now because you ask me stupid questions. But since I’m on probation, I suppose that’s improper to say as well.”

NASCAR agreed: suspending him from this weekend’s event at Pocono and extending his probation period until December 31, 2012.

At present the whole of NASCAR appears to be down on Busch, but I’m not going to join that party. While half the current hoo-ha is focused disapprovingly on Kurt’s regular outbursts and altercations, the other half is being spent fondly reminiscing on the times when drivers – AJ Foyt and Dale Earnhardt Sr among them – would frequently get physical with journalists if they disapproved of how they went about their business.

That’s not to say that Busch has ever done much for my enjoyment of NASCAR either. It’s clear that while there’s talent there in spades, and a genuine love of racing that’s seen him become only the third Cup driver to cross over to the NHRA drag strip, he takes things a step too far a few times too often.

When in the past Tony Stewart has let his mouth get the better of him, he has at least retained a degree of commonsense. The point was worth making, even if the method was questionable. Not so in the case of Kurt Busch, whose rages have often appeared unfathomable.

In what can be seen as a result of his ongoing bad behaviour, Busch has shifted from team to team through the years. So much so that, despite his many on-track achievements, he is running with Phoenix Racing in the 2012 Cup.

This is a team which is more than a little down-at-heel when compared with the works-supported pantechnicons of Roush, Hendrick, Penske et al. And yet to be honest it’s also brought out another side to the guy as far as I’m concerned.

Busch has clearly shown how much the sport means to him – much like when Petter Solberg, the former pin-up boy for the World Rally Championship, had to set up his own privateer outfit to keep going back in 2009. Clearly it’s been hard, all the more so when he’s being employed by little brother Kyle’s team in the Nationwide class – something tells me that doesn’t sit at all well on a proud man’s shoulders…

The Darlington probation was well deserved, but I for one hope that Busch holds it together, rather than chuck it all in to go drag racing. Talladega this year revealed a completely new Kurt Busch to me – not least because his unsponsored car was wearing the colours of comedy NASCAR ace Rocky Bobby from the movie Talladega Nights.

That kind of tongue-in-cheek from a driver of his former stature was impressive. And, as a man on the outside, Busch was noticeable in being virtually the only guy willing to draft with Dale Earnhardt Jr at Talladega – something none of his teammates seemed keen to do.

To cap Busch’s Talladega weekend he spun out to cause the late race caution and ended up at the pit lane exit. In a moment of which Ricky Bobby himself would be proud, Busch simply drove back up the pit lane and virtually J-turned into his stall. So to let him get away with that, NASCAR race officials can’t be all that focused on the rulebook!

Hopefully the Pocono race weekend will be what’s needed to calm the situation on all sides. After all, things always get interesting when there’s a Busch or two around!