Murto: Famous number returns to NASCAR

NASCAR couldn’t have scripted it better; the number made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt returns to competition and sits on the pole for the Daytona 500.

The week prior to Sprint Cup qualifying the return of Richard Childress’ No. 3 was major news. Fox Sports 1 ran an hour-long special a few times focusing on the number’s return. It was a major talking point.

And then Cup rookie Austin Dillon actually put the car on the pole by .04 seconds over the Furniture Row No. 78 driven by Martin Truex Jr. Both cars were equipped with Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines.

The return of the 3 car drew a lot of emotion from fans. There was quite a bit of controversy regarding the number’s return. Many fans mistakenly believed that the number had been retired. Others believe the number should be retired. Still others don’t believe that Dillon, 23, has earned the right to drive the number that for so many years graced the side of the cars wheeled by one of NASCAR’s true legends.

NASCAR doesn’t retire numbers. If it did, you wouldn’t see the 43 car on the track. The number was never retired; Childress continued to license the number from NASCAR and kept it on mothballs.

Has Dillon earned the right to race the No. 3? Well, he won a Camping World Truck Series championship and a Nationwide championship, both using the No. 3. It’s obvious the kid can drive, whether you like him or not. The fact that he’s Chidress’ grandson certainly gave him opportunities and top-notch equipment most other people his age never had, but drivers don’t win championships who don’t have ability. And when Austin got behind the wheel of a Cup car last season, he was impressive.

Some fans believe the fix is in. There have been reports in the past of cars getting it easy in tech when NASCAR wants a team or a sponsor to have an advantage. Rumors were that Junior Johnson’s cars were given lenient tech inspections at times as NASCAR did its best to prevent major sponsors from leaving the sport. Reports of similar favoritism are so frequent it’s hard to believe there’s nothing to them.

This does not mean NASCAR fixes races; that’s impossible, there are too many variables. You can’t control every car on the track, drivers make mistakes, crew members flub pit stops, etc. But it’s safe to say that if NASCAR wants you to have an advantage, you’ll have an advantage.

Some believe the same goes for qualifying at the restrictor-plate tracks. After all, NASCAR officials are the only people who touch the plates. They bring them to the team before each use, and they retrieve them when the day is done. With Danica on everyone’s lips last year at this time, and the 3 car this year, some say it’s too good to be true that Danica got the pole last year and the 3 this year. After all, it’s doubtful that God’s a NASCAR fan; surely the Almighty is concerned with more than promoting the Daytona 500.

But .04 seconds is not a huge margin. And Austin Dillon had to steer the car correctly so as not to scrub off speed on his qualifying lap. Perhaps it’s best to save the conspiracy theories for now, and bring them back if/when Chase Elliott grabs the pole in his Cup debut for Hendrick Motorsports in a year or two, when the racing world will be buzzing about Bill’s son driving in the Cup Series. Should that happen, then either the fix is in or the Almighty is a NASCAR fan.

Only the front row of Sunday’s Daytona 500 has been determined. Tonight the twin qualifying races will be televised live, so check your TV listings. We’ll see exactly how the 3 races as we set the remainder of the starting lineup. The only thing that will keep the 3 from leading the field to green on Sunday is a blown engine or a wrecked car. An engine change or backup car will put the 3 to the rear.

No matter what happens tonight in the qualifying races or in Sunday’s Daytona 500, the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 set fast time to sit on the pole in its return to Sprint Cup competition. It’ll be the top story, and it couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.