Childress: Dale Jr. has open invitation

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt's famed No. 3 can be
found everywhere at Daytona International Speedway. On T-shirts,
jackets, hats and watches. On flags, stickers, cups and cell
phones. Even on cars with replica paint schemes.

The number can be seen almost anywhere -- except on the track.

It might be like that for a while longer, too.

Although NASCAR has been reluctant to retire numbers, this one
would be difficult to bring back. After all, who wants the burden
of following The Intimidator?

"I'd like to see it not get on the track for at least a few
more years," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "Eventually, it's got to be
on the racetrack. It's just a number. But I'm not ready for it to
happen just yet."

Neither is car owner Richard Childress, who first drove the No.
3 car in the 1970s.

"I sometimes catch myself going through the garage and looking
for the black No. 3," Childress said. "The race fans got to be
thinking the same thing. But I don't ever see bringing a black No.
3 car back unless there's an Earnhardt in the car."

The elder Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, was
killed three years ago when his car hit the wall on the final lap
of the Daytona 500.

His trademark number has been used in a NASCAR race just twice
since -- when Junior drove it in a pair of Busch series events in
2002, including once at Daytona.

Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona race, an emotional return to
Victory Lane for the No. 3. Three months later at Lowe's Motor
Speedway in his native North Carolina, Junior was back in the No.
3, but he crashed and finished 36th.

"There's a guy somewhere whose daddy raced No. 3 forever on
some short track, and it probably means as much to him as it does
to me," Earnhardt Jr. said. "You've got to be fair about those
type of things. I understand that, and I don't have a problem with
it coming back one day."

Earnhardt Jr. won consecutive championships in the Busch series
driving the No. 3 in 1998 and 1999. When he moved up to the Winston
Cup circuit the following year, his father was still using that
number so Earnhardt Jr. switched to No. 8. That was the number his
grandfather, NASCAR pioneer Ralph Earnhardt, raced.

"I know a lot of fans would like to see me in the No. 3 car,
but I'm pretty fond of that No. 8," Junior said. "That was my
granddaddy's number, and my dad raced it some, so it has a lot of
history with my family, too."

He finished third in the points last year and will start third
Sunday in the Daytona 500 at the track where his father won 34
overall races.

Childress has the rights to the No. 3. He took the number off
his Chevrolets after Earnhardt's death, choosing to run the No. 29
with replacement driver Kevin Harvick.

Childress said he and Earnhardt Sr. often talked about who would
move into the No. 3 car after his retirement, and Harvick's name
often came up.

Since Earnhardt's death, Harvick has maintained he doesn't want
to race the No. 3.

Car owners, drivers and race fans are split over what they would
like to see happen to the number. Many believe it should be retired
permanently. Others think it should return to the track -- possibly
with Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel.

Former Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip insists Earnhardt's
number should not be retired.

"I know it's not the most popular thing to say, but we've never
retired a number before, so why start now?" he said.

NASCAR legend Richard Petty doesn't believe the No. 3 will be
officially retired. But he doesn't expect to see it on the track,

"The problem with retiring numbers is what criteria do you use?
There would always be an argument about whose number should be
retired. Some people would be upset if their favorite driver's
number didn't get retired," said Petty, whose team still runs the
No. 43 he drove to seven titles. "It's such an emotional thing."

It also has something to do with money.

Childress continues to reap benefits from owning the rights to
the number. Every T-shirt, hat, flag and cup adorned with the No. 3
brings in bucks.

"Right now, they're making so dadgum much money from No. 3 and
Earnhardt that they aren't about to mess that up," Petty said.

Childress denies his decision has anything to do with money. He
said Dale Jr. has an open invitation to join RCR and race the famed
black car.

He also knows Junior wants to escape his father's shadow and
establish his own identity.

"He's building his own legacy in the No. 8 right now,"
Childress said.

Earnhardt Jr. won't completely rule out driving No. 3 - even
with the exact paint scheme as his father.

"I would like to run the No. 3," he said, "but I doubt I will
do that until later in my career."