Sterling Marlin always expected the No. 3 to return to NASCAR.
Marlin, who is from Columbia, was involved in the crash in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt was killed while driving the No. 3 in the Daytona 500.
The number hasn't been run since, but it will be displayed today on rookie Austin Dillon's Chevrolet when he takes the pole in the Daytona 500. The race begins at 12:30 p.m. (WZTV-17).
Some feel it is too soon for the 3 to be back on the track. Others feel it should have been permanently retired.
Marlin has a different take.
He said he expected it to return when Dillon stepped up to the Sprint Cup Series. Dillon's grandfather, Richard Childress, who also drove the No. 3, owns the number and it was his decision to bring it back.
"Once I saw Richard's grandson start driving, I knew he was a pretty good driver, so I figured it would just be a matter of time before Richard would bring the 3 out for him," Marlin said.
Marlin said he doesn't have a problem with Dillon driving the No. 3.
"I think it's a tribute to Dale," he said. "I think that's fine."
Gil Martin from Nashville is Dillon's crew chief. He said most of the response the team has received to bringing the 3 back has been positive.
"Eighty to 85 percent of the people are extremely excited about bringing the number back and understand the full reasoning behind it," Martin said. "Not just the fact that it was Dale Earnhardt's number, but it was also Austin's grandfather's number, and that means a lot to him. But there's going to be a lot of people that are going to have us under a microscope, and every time we have an issue, they're going to compare Austin to Dale and how he's never going to live up to it."
Some will become more accepting of Dillon driving the No. 3, Martin said, as time goes by and they get used to seeing it back on the track. Any success Dillon experiences also would help.
"We'll be able to change over about 10 percent of those who aren't happy about it," Martin said. "There's going to be about 5 percent that we're never going to change over. Obviously, he's going to need to have some good finishes; we're going to need to win this Rookie of the Year. With the way the chase is laid out this year, I think we have as good of a shot as anybody of making it into it."
Former Tennessean sports writer Larry Woody, who is in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, said he does not believe Earnhardt would have had any problem seeing another driver with his number.
"I think he'd be all for it," Woody said. "Dale Earnhardt was not what you would call a real sentimental type of guy. He was not a touchy-feely guy. I think he'd be fine with little Austin running his car number."
Woody said he never considered the No. 3 being Earnhardt's exclusively.
"I'm so old the first No. 3 I saw racing in NASCAR was on Richard Childress' car back when he used to come in and race at the Nashville fairgrounds," Woody said. "Richard Childress was running the No. 3 back before anybody had heard of Dale Earnhardt."
Joe Williams, who has spent more than 30 years announcing races at Fairgrounds Speedway and the Nashville Superspeedway, said he sees both sides of the argument.
"There's not a right answer to it," Williams said. "From a business standpoint, the 3 belongs to Richard Childress; it was Richard's before Dale drove for him, and it's Richard's after Dale drove for him. From an emotional standpoint, it will be interesting to see the 3, especially on the pole at Daytona. I don't know if people are going to be ready for it."
Williams said he can imagine there being plenty of pressure on Dillon by running the No. 3.
"If Earnhardt had lived and retired, I think the only thing he would have said to the kid is, 'Don't embarrass me,' " Williams said.
Tony Formosa, who holds the lease at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, said he expected Earnhardt fans to be upset, but added that they shouldn't be.
"I don't think it's any disrespect to Dale Earnhardt in any shape, form or fashion," Formosa said. "Richard and Dale were the best of friends, and Richard wouldn't be doing this if he felt he was going against Dale's wishes."