NASCAR History Lesson: No. 3 Through the Years

By Nick DeGroot
James Marvin Phelps/Flickr Creative Commons

The No. 3 is the most iconic number in NASCAR and it was made famous by the late, great Dale Earnhardt. With the return of the No. 3 on the horizon, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the number’s history which dates back to the beginning of NASCAR in 1949. What you find out might surprise you.

On Aug. 7, 1949 in Hillsboro, N.C., the newly formed National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing tore up the clay at Occoneechee Speedway in a 200-mile battle between the sport’s pioneers. Bob Flock emerged victorious, but Bill Snowden, the man who finished a respectable fifth, was the one who made the real history. It was the first time the now famous No. 3 was raced in NASCAR. In the early years of the sport, the No. 3 was passed around on a fairly frequent basis.

It wasn’t until 1954 that a driver used the number for more than just a few events. Dick Rathman ran the No. 3 for most of the 1954 season and was the first person to put the car out front and more importantly, win with it. The No. 3 captured the checkered flag for the very first time at Oakland Speedway in March of 1954 and it would be far from the last time that victory lane and the number would meet. Paul Goldsmith would be the next driver to carry the number for an extended period of time and after he won the final race ever held on the beaches of Daytona, the number changed hands between some very prominent NASCAR names.

Cotton Owens, Marvin Panch and Jim Paschal all showcased the number on their door between 1958 and 1960, but it was Fireball Roberts who really put the No. 3 in the spotlight when he took it to victory lane at none other than Daytona International Speedway in the summer of 1959. Between 1962 and 1974, the number was associated with car owner Ray Fox who won with racing legends such as David Pearson, Junior Johnson and the Baker’s (Buck and son Buddy) … all victories coming with the No.3.

After Fox retired from car owning, a racer by the name of Richard Childress picked up the number. Yeah, that Richard Childress. He switched from the No. 96 to No. 3 because it took up less paint and was, therefore, cheaper. He never won as a driver and after five years behind the wheel of the No. 3, he opted to put someone else in the seat. The new driver was an eager young gun who they called Ironhead for his bullish driving style and stubborn attitude; his name was Dale Earnhardt.

Together, Childress and Earnhardt built a dynasty that found its way into racing immortality, but before they would become a near-unstoppable force on the track, they briefly parted ways so Childress could get his equipment up to a level complementary of Earnhardt’s talents. Ricky Rudd won two races in the car before Earnhardt returned in 1984 and within two years, they were Sprint Cup champions. They backed up their title run with another one in 1987. When 1990 came around, the pair really turned up the heat and won four championships in a period of five years.

Going into the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt was coming off a runner-up finish in points and was one of the favorites for the title that season. He had also recently established his own team, DEI, with Michael Waltrip, Steve Park and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. making up the driver lineup. On the final lap, his two drivers (Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip) were leading the race while he followed in third and tried to hold off the snarling pack of cars behind them. He fought hard and it was all going well until the very last corner of the very last lap. A turn of the wheel, an impact with a wall and just like that, a legend was gone.

The No. 3 hasn’t been seen in a Cup race since “Black Sunday,” but that will all change in just one month. The grandson of Richard Childress, Austin Dillon, will pilot the famous number in the 56th annual Daytona 500. The decision was met with both applause and criticism from the NASCAR fan base. Like it or not, though, it’s back.

The No. 3 will always be known as “Dale’s number,” but it’s time for a new era of the No. 3 … the Dillon era.

Connect With Nick DeGroot on Twitter @ndegroot89.

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