There may never be another driver that meant as much to the sport of NASCAR as Dale Earnhardt. This weekend marks the five year anniversary of his death during a last lap crash at the Daytona 500.
Sometimes it seems like he is still here. There are just as many "3" flags flying in the infield as when he raced. Just as many fans still sport his merchandise from head to toe. While they may have had to shift to supporting Earnhardt's son Dale Jr. on the race track, the love of the seven time champion is still palpable.
Earnhardt began his career in 1975 and went on to earn 76 wins, 22 poles and a co-record seven Cup series titles. A feat many pundits think will never be accomplished by any other driver.
With today's competitive climate and the new Chase format it is an unlikely scenario that any driver would be able to dominate in the fashion that Earnhardt did. Only Jeff Gordon, who already has four titles, stands a chance of being able to bridge the gap. But, Gordon has long said he would not stick around the party longer than welcome and is not striving to break Earnhardt and Petty's records.
Earnhardt's legacy is far from just a bunch of numbers on a stat sheet. He built a multi-million dollar winning race team that will keep his name prominent in the sport for decades to come. While Earnhardt chose to drive his career at Richard Childress Racing, his Cup and Busch teams at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated Racing have enjoyed numerous successes and championships; as well as providing a house for his namesake Dale Jr. to run throughout his career.
Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, remains the figurehead at DEI where she fights to gain the best crew members so she can continue to oversee the family business that Earnhardt entrusted to her when he died.
Race fans and many garage insiders would give anything to see the day that a No. 3 Chevrolet took back to a NASCAR track with an Earnhardt behind the wheel. But, that is something that Teresa Earnhardt feels is highly unlikely.
During a Speed TV program on her late husband, the widow was clear on her belief that no one has big enough feet to fill Earnhardt's shoes, "Contrary to popular belief, everyone cannot be replaced. Legends live on forever. I don't think the #3 will ever be driven by anyone else."
It was a rare public comment from Teresa Earnhardt and one that has caused a little bit of a ripple in the NASCAR community. Earnhardt, Jr. has long expressed an interest that one day in his career he would like to use the number "3".
He recently stated in an interview that he not only would like to explore the possibility of taking DEI over one day, but that he believed that one day he would drive his father's legendary number.
Ultimately, Teresa Earnhardt may not have much to say about who drives the number "3" car and who doesn't. Legally, that number and design is owned by Richard Childress Racing. In fact, Childress still uses a black No. 3 show car around the country -the one thing that is missing, however, is Earnhardt's name on the door placard. Teresa Earnhardt owns the rights to his name and image.
Most race fans hope that as Teresa moves on with her life and family that her uber protection of Earnhardt and his legacy might relax enough to give them what they want; Earnhardt, Jr. riding around the track in a No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet. Even though she has no legal right to stop the "3" car from getting back on track, it certainly seems that Earnhardt, Jr. will have a family rumble on his hands if he wants to do it.
Youth is on his side though; sooner or later he will outlive her and get to do whatever he wants.