- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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On Friday evening, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will slide through the window and into the seat of the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet for 300 miles of Nationwide Series racing at Daytona International Speedway.
Until that moment, he cannot know how that car number on his door, and that blue and yellow paint before him on the hood, and memories of his father's win-at-all-costs attitude while driving them may affect him. Especially at that track.
But he is fairly certain about one thing: July 2, 2010 will be the last time he drives a race car with the No. 3 on the door.
"I just want to go to the racetrack and run it once before I retire, and this will probably be it," he said. "After this, I'll probably never drive a car with a 3 on it again. I can pretty much say I'm 99 percent sure that will never happen again."
This is a stark revelation, especially for long-suffering Earnhardt fans who dreamed Junior would close out his career in a black No. 3.
Junior, too, once thought that was his destiny. No more.
"It's not [my number] to take and use whenever I feel like using it," he said through a sheepish grin. "You just don't grab the car keys off the counter and go run out the door and haul down the road with your dad's car. I didn't do it when he was alive, and I won't do it now.
"I'm borrowing it once, and then maybe sometime down the road some kid will come up, and he'll have a connection to the 3 -- whether it's through my father or whether it's what his number's been since he was playing teeball. Whatever, you know, that will be his. It will be someone else's."
The current Wrangler program is a dual initiative -- partly to honor Big E, partly out of necessity. Junior's sister, Kelley Earnhardt, Sprint Cup team owner and owner of the No. 3 trademark Richard Childress, and Teresa Earnhardt all played a role in putting the deal together, and wanted to tie it into Dale Earnhardt's Hall of Fame induction.
The team Earnhardt Jr., owns, JR Motorsports, had sponsorship gaps throughout the season, including Daytona. And the idea was to take a business plan used several years ago and implement it again. Earnhardt Jr. has a personal services agreement with Wrangler, and they would take a portion of that money and shift it over to the race team, as they did several years back when Martin Truex, Jr. was gunning for the Nationwide Series championship in Junior's No. 8 car.
Junior drove a No. 3 Chevrolet for Childress back in 2002, and won. He appreciates Childress letting him compete in the number, and admits this project was an important, positive reconnection in the oft-cold relationship with Teresa Earnhardt, his stepmother. But the 3 on the track, with Junior behind the wheel, has a wide-ranging, deep emotional impact on millions of people.
"There's a lot of different emotions it brings up in that car, when people say, 'Hey, the 3 is coming back,' and 'I'm driving the 3 and all those things, and there's a lot of emotion to that, and a lot of pros and cons, and people not happy and happy, so it's just something I want to do and that will be that," he said.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.