Should No. 3 car return to Cup Series?

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When you think about the Daytona 500 and Daytona International Speedway, plenty of unforgettable images come to mind.

Richard Petty and David Pearson colliding on the way to the checkered flag, Pearson's battered car creeping like a turtle through the frontstretch grass toward the finish line.

Cale Yarborough slugging it out -- literally -- with Bobby and Donnie Allison in the fourth-turn grass, while Petty takes the checkered flag.

Bobby Allison holding off son Davey to win in the 1988 Daytona 500.

Darrell Waltrip doing the Ickey Shuffle in victory lane after winning in 1989.

But the most indelible image, for me, is Dale Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevrolet cruising down pit road after Earnhardt finally won the 500 in 1998 after 20 tries, crews from nearly every team lined up to salute him.

Earnhardt grabbing long-time car owner Richard Childress by the neck and hugging him in Victory Lane, then hoisting the famous Harley J. Earl trophy.

Later, as he entered the Daytona International Speedway press box, someone tossed Earnhardt a stuffed monkey, and he told everyone the proverbial monkey was finally off his back.

For many long-time fans, Dale Earnhardt is Daytona. Though he won the 500 only once, no one ever won more races in more different series on NASCAR's most hallowed ground.

Though Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 a record seven times, it is Earnhardt's bronze statue that stands outside the speedway.

When the speedway first erected lights around the 2.5-mile track, it was Earnhardt's black Chevrolet that turned the first nighttime laps.

Speedweeks at Daytona is just not the same without Earnhardt's black No. 3 being in the show.

Neither is NASCAR's weekly Sprint Cup Series.

So, that begs the question: Should Richard Childress Racing, which still owns the rights to the No. 3, bring back the iconic number?

It is a raging debate that will last as long as Childress owns the rights to the number and has the power to bring it back.

Childress has raced the No. 3 a few times since Earnhardt's death. Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove a No. 3 Nationwide Series car for RCR in 2002. And Austin Dillon, Childress' grandson, has used the No. 3 since he started racing.

Dillon will race a black No. 3 in the Camping World Truck Series this year. Though that will no doubt bring back some fond memories for NASCAR fans, it is not the same as seeing Earnhardt's black No. 3 Cup car.

Childress says he has no current plans to race a black No. 3 in the Cup series, but adds, "You never say never. You never know what we may do."

Should he bring back one of the two most famous race cars -- along with Petty's blue No. 43 -- in NASCAR history?

Opinions vary widely.

Kevin Harvick, who had the unenviable honor of replacing Earnhardt at RCR after his death in 2001, says no. He says the number should be retired, like famous numbers in other sports.

Teammate Jeff Burton, though, disagrees.

"The 3 has a history to it and it has a heritage to it, and that history and heritage is not only linked to Dale Earnhardt but to Richard Childress Racing," Burton said. "They collectively made the 3 a symbol of success and a commitment to do everything it took to win. ... It is such a huge part of our sport, it should only be back in the right situation."

What is the right situation?

"I don't know," Burton says. "It has to be a special situation. ... With Richard Childress involved, the Earnhardt legacy has to be involved, all those things have to come together. If all those things come together, it is not only a good thing to do, it is the right thing to do."

The only scenario that seems right is for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who inherited his father's enormous fan base, to one day drive the black No. 3. That may or may not be possible. Earnhardt Jr. is currently entrenched at Hendrick Motorsports. But if his current struggles continue, who knows?

RCR would be the most logical destination for him should he leave Hendrick. If that happens, Childress agrees that he would probably have to have an Earnhardt behind the wheel if he ever brought the No. 3 back.

"If an Earnhardt comes along some day, a grandson or a great-grandson or whatever, you never know," he says.

But even then, should the menacing color scheme that Earnhardt made so famous ever circle a NASCAR track again?

For long-time Earnhardt fans, many who can't even stand to watch the sport anymore since his death, it would be an emotional experience.

For some, it would be just too painful.

For others, it would be a heart-warming experience, bringing back joyful memories of "The Intimidator" and "The Man in Black." It might even bring back many of the fans who still haven't gotten over Earnhardt¹s death.

I agree with Burton. The return of the black No. 3 would be good for the sport.

It would be a fitting tribute to the history and heritage of the sport and to the memory of one of NASCAR's greatest drivers.

A history and heritage that should never be forgotten, especially at Daytona, the site of Earnhardt's greatest triumph.