NMPA
c/o Bridget Holloman, Exec. Secretary
P.O. Box 500
Darlington, SC 29540
Phone: (843) 395-8811

Columns
Fifth Place
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com

1. Brad Keselowski Will Do It His Way

More of us know the feeling than will ever be willing to admit it.

You walk into the school cafeteria, or on to the bus, or onto the playground at recess ... and there's nowhere for you to eat. Or sit. Or play. Everyone just keeps on doing whatever it was they were doing before you came in, and act if you're not even there. On the worst days that ostracization comes with the glares. The up-and-down judgmental eye scans that say "You're not worthy to be with us today, so why don't you just go away."

Maybe you did something bad. Or maybe you didn't. Maybe there was rumor going around that was totally untrue. Or true. Maybe you simply wore a shirt that no one had seen before or had a piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe. But instead of asking where you bought it or politely pointing out the issue, everyone made a groupthink decision to use it as That Thing That Makes You Different and thusly less than them.

Or maybe you just kicked their butts on an exam. You ruined the grading curve. You got the part in the school play that they all wanted. You won homecoming king over the more popular kid. Or maybe you defended the nerd when the cool kids were picking on him in the courtyard.

They point. They whisper. They laugh. They push you to the margins. Just for doing something that they all decided – without you – was out of line.
So what do you do with that? Do you retreat to the nurse's office and act like you're sick so she will let you check out and go home? Do you compliantly go sit in the corner of the lunchroom by yourself like they want you to? Or do you file it all away to burn as fuel toward becoming valedictorian so you that they will have to sit and listen to your speech at graduation?

This is how it's been for Brad Keselowski ever since he first walked into the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage. It's a workplace that that might as well be named Bill France Senior High School. Where everyone knows everyone and has for a long time. It's a relatively small group of people, about the size of a high school. And just like any high school, there are cliques and social tiers. How team transporters are parked in the garage and driver motor coaches are parked in the infield might as well be how table seating is arranged in that cafeteria. It's a world that works together, eats together and even sleeps together. Couples date, they marry, they cheat and they fight. Some are traditional couples. Others are business couples.

And just like your school or your cul-de-sac, some people just never quite fit in. Like Brad Keselowski. It goes way back. Long before this year's post-race brawls at Texas and Charlotte, or his 2012 championship, or his storybook first win, or his big career breaks, first with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and then Roger Penske.

He's found himself in feuds with an all-star cast of Carl EdwardsDenny HamlinKevin HarvickMatt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. As the whole world knows by now, any and all seem to have taken issue with his racing on the track, so much so that even when his moves weren't that egregious, everyone acts as if they were.

But the real rub in Brad vs. World has never been about rubbing race cars. It's been about Keselowski himself. Countless drivers have given him head-scratching looks when he's gotten downright philosophical during news conferences. They don't understand him. And everyone keeps waiting for him to stop being him, to work harder at finding and sliding neatly into his place on the pyramid. But it hasn't – and won't – happen.

"You're always going to be odd man out. You might get a hug every now and then, but you're not in the family." Those were the knowing words of Darrell Waltrip, who as a mouthy young newcomer rattled the 1970s status quo established by Richard PettyBobby Allison and Cale Yarborough.

On Tuesday's "Marty & McGee" podcast Waltrip talked about carving that closed door into an edge. "I did what I think a lot like what Keselowski does, I looked back and said, 'Where can I gain an advantage?' If everybody had the same race car and we're coming down to the last lap ... 'how do I beat these guys?' I could beat them by getting in their head. Making them aware of where I was, what am I doing, and what am I going to do? It's almost like Clint Eastwood, standing over that guy with the revolver. Have I fired five times or have I fired six? That's the doubt you want in a competitor's mind."

On Tuesday, Denny Hamlin pulled back the curtain on the subject and exposed a little of that doubt, saying, "You're just looking for someone to say, 'Man, I'm sorry I ruined your day. I screwed up. I apologize.' ... When that doesn't get said, then it immediately lights a fire in your stomach that he doesn't have any remorse. He's just like, 'Oh well, it's your problem.'"

On the surface, the message is that Keselowski has violated some sort of driver's code. But it's much more complicated than that. It's an exposed nerve with roots that run deeper than merely a debate over one driver's racing style.

There's a sea of change happening within NASCAR, a volatile recipe of a new postseason format mixed with an influx of young drivers, which inevitably leads to a pushing out of the older ones. Throw in a dash of social media, 24/7 sports talk radio, an impending new TV deal, and a cold war between team owners and the sanctioning body and it's a combustible dish, the kind that ends up with a bunkhouse stampede on pit road and drivers icing up fat lips on the flight home.

Keselowski, fair or unfair, has become the masthead for this unstoppable momentum into an unpredictable future. And here's where the true issue of his multifront fight can be found. It's the reason Kevin Harvick took it upon himself to push Keselowski in the back like a kid on an elementary school playground "and told him to go fight his own fight." The reason Gordon questioned how he'd ever won a championship. And the reason Hamlin launched a very personal Scud missile attack via Tuesday's media teleconference.

"If you ask me 'Do you want a championship trophy or do you want the respect of your peers?' I will take the respect from my peers because that trophy, they can't put in my casket," Hamlin said. "What's the fun of a NASCAR (championship) party that nobody shows up to?"

When Hamlin said it, it sounded familiar. It was.

"I guess no matter how many boos there are, you've gotta keep doing your deal. I think if I got all those boos, I'd have to rethink it."

Tim Richmond said that to the Charlotte Observer on May 17, 1987... about Dale Earnhardt ... after he won the Winston All-Star Race ... via the "Pass In The Grass."

But what does Keselowski have that Hamlin and Harvick do not? Or that Gordon hasn't had in nearly a decade and a half? The same thing Earnhardt won in '87 that Richmond did not. That trophy.

After winning the Sprint Cup title in 2012, Keselowski did listen to the critics and he did try to change his driving style the following season, a fact that both he and spotter Joey Meier admitted to this week. Guess what? He won just one race, as opposed to five in '12 and six in this year, and failed to make the Chase. He tried to care about what the others thought, and what happened? They whipped his tail on the racetrack.

So now he's back to the approach that got him here in the first place. The kind of desperation that clawed a kid from nowhere to the biggest stage in racing and once had him saying to me, lip nearly quivering, "I'm not sure you can do it like I've done it ever again, without money. Just winning and surviving. I feel like Indiana Jones pulling his hat out from under that big stone door just as it slammed shut behind me."

That's a man who will do whatever it takes to win. His way has worked, even if it means having nowhere to sit in the cafeteria. If it keeps working and he keeps winning, one day he can buy his own table.

2. A Blunt Reminder of Racing Reality

For a moment, I forgot there was a chance we could die.

It was April 14, 2013, and I'd let the adrenaline and excitement of the racetrack rob me of my common sense. It was a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at the Rockingham Speedway, my hometown track and the place where I first fell in love with motorsports. Now my 8-year-old daughter was there, attending her first race, and just as enamored with it all as I had been. And why not? That morning she'd taken pictures with Brad Keselowski, Bubba Wallace and "all the girls in the race." She'd been on the grid for "drivers, start your engines" and then gripped my arm as the field lurched to life under the green flag.

It had been a great day. Downright magical.

As the race's first pit stops began, I was quick to hustle her down to pit road. We went into an empty pit stall and joined several other fans who'd taken up spots along the knee-high wall to watch as a truck slid in sideways, just a few feet away. The crew dove into action, slinging hoses and tires and then ... a chill suddenly slinked down my spine ... hey, wait ... Ryan ... what the hell are you doing?

I looked at my beaming little girl, her ponytail bracketed by her big, pink ear coverings. She was leaning over the wall, just as I had done hundreds of times. But this was different. Suddenly a light came on. It was as if two decades of veneer had been stripped from my eyes. I no longer saw a race truck. I saw a 3,400-pound, growling, smoking machine. I didn't see tire changers. I saw lug nuts zinging through the air like bullets. I saw fire extinguishers ... I saw ambulances ... I saw shredded tires ... a guy with his arm in a sling. I saw flashbacks to the night at Hickory Motor Speedway when I was nearly run over by a car that lost control and drove into the pit box. I suddenly remembered the heat I'd felt on my face from a flash fire that exploded in an IndyCar pit beside me. My mind saw the welts left on my back when I'd been pelted with flying lug nuts, identical to the ones whistling by now.

I no longer saw racing. I saw violence.

So I grabbed my little girl by the back of her T-shirt, yanked her out of there and took her to the media center roof, safely two stories above it all.
How could I have been so stupid? So insensitive? So oblivious? Because I have been around it all so much over the past 20 years that I take it for granted. Because I truly do love it. I have faith in the people who build and race these machines. Many are my friends and I have long stood in awe of what they do.

However, during the weekly grind of the longest season in professional sports, it becomes easy to dismiss the danger, for both those who watch and those who participate. Much of that, as it was for me at Rockingham, is a compliment. A belief that everyone around you is so good at what they do that they can keep it all in line.

But at some point faith becomes comfort. Then comfort becomes complacency. You lose sight of the fact you are constantly surrounded by industrial-strength violence. The kind of forces that lull you into believing that you have them under control, but in reality can hurt you whenever they damn well please. A sort of mechanical "Jurassic Park."

A few years ago my colleague Nate Ryan of USA Today wrote a piece titled "Did NASCAR go too far promoting driver safety?" As tends to happen these days, people reacted more to the headline than to the actual piece. But within that piece was a message being sent by veteran racers such as Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace, men who survived the relative rattletrap race cars of the 1970s, as well as the fatalities of the late '90s that led to most of today's safety innovations.

"Our cars would kill you," Waltrip told Ryan. "You kissed your wife goodbye and drove down pit road, looking in the mirror and waving, because there was always doubt that, 'If something goes wrong, I might not be back.'"

Those veterans, no matter what series they raced in, openly worry about younger generations taking safety for granted. The equipment is better. The racetracks are better. Racing-related deaths are now seldom and shocking instead of business as usual. But the beast will never be completely declawed.

"You can't allow yourself to get comfortable," Johnny Rutherford explained to me during a conversation in 1999. The three-time Indy 500 champion was the pace car driver and driving coach for the fledgling Indy Racing League, a series filled with unproven youngsters. "We're all guilty of it, but youngsters today are a video-game generation. Danger can feel not real. You can get real brave when the brave thing to do is not to do it. But if there's one truth in auto racing, it's that whenever we allow ourselves to take it for granted, something will happen to remind us of how stupid we were to do so."

Then Lone Star JR sat up in his chair for emphasis. "You can't dare this sport but so long," he said.

I thought about Rutherford's words in September 2005, when an angry Robby Gordon strolled squarely out into traffic on the New Hampshire backstretch to throw his helmet at Michael Waltrip's car after a crash. Gordon assumed that the field, slowed by the caution flag (but still traveling above your city's speed limit), would weave around him while he completed his toss. But, man, what a stupid dare.

What if the throttle on one of the 20-plus cars easing toward him under caution suddenly stuck? What if a steering wheel had come loose in someone's hands as they weaved back and forth? What if a tire had suddenly exploded under one of the cars and sent it out of control? C'mon, man, that stuff never happens!

Yes, it does. I've seen it all with my own eyes. It happens all the time. And that's why I should have known better when I put my daughter in harm's way at Rockingham. That's why Gordon should have known better at Loudon. That's why Kurt Busch should have known better at Indianapolis in 2003. Or Tony Stewart at Bristol in 2012. Or Shawn Monahan at the Waterford Speedbowl last Saturday night. The list goes on and on, every weekend.

Any one of them could have been Kevin Ward Jr.

And that's why they – we – need to use Saturday night's tragedy at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park as a reminder that the violence of motorsports might feel dormant. But it's not. It never is.

When I watch the video of Ward exploding out of his race car, I see a kid with a burning passion for his sport. I see the emotion of a racer who believed he had a chance to win and had that chance taken away. I see a youngster who no doubt grew up watching his heroes walk out onto racetracks to express their displeasure with a rival, danger be damned, and thusly felt he could do the same.

But Ward made the same mistake that they all did. He made the same mistake that I did. He put his faith in the people and the equipment roaring around him. He assumed they could control forces that don't want to be controlled. But loving racing isn't an excuse to forget the dangers of it.

For a moment, he forgot there was a chance he could die.

3. Closure Not Going to Come

Closure.

That's the word that came up early and often during Tony Stewart's Monday morning news conference at Stewart-Haas Racing. When will Stewart find closure? When will Kevin Ward Jr.'s family find closure? What does Stewart think he might be able to do to help the Ward family find closure?

But here's the lone, hard truth that we have known since the very first hours after Ward's death via contact with Stewart's sprint car the night of Aug. 9 in upstate New York.

Closure isn't coming.

Closure didn't come with Ward's funeral. Closure didn't come when Stewart returned to the racetrack on Aug. 31. Closure didn't come Wednesday when a grand jury no-billed the case. Closure certainly hasn't come via the best efforts of the shouting masses on cable news channels, radio call-in shows and social media timelines. And closure didn't come Monday, when Stewart fielded questions with measured thoughtfulness and dark circles under his eyes, his voice wavering and his face managing one solitary half-smile.

Nothing he said Monday was as powerful or true as what he confessed while reading a prewritten statement at Atlanta one month ago and repeated in both his reaction to the grand jury ruling and his interview with the Associated Press immediately following.

"This is something that will definitely affect my life forever."

Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one – and we all will – knows too well that the pain of that loss never goes away. The same goes for any tragic experience. The hurt erodes as the years go by, but you never truly get over it. You merely learn to live with it.

In the case of the Ward family, they are likely entering that confusing stage of grief where the physical sting begins to diminish, even if just slightly, from what it was seven weeks ago. That reality can hurt even worse than the initial loss because it means that life is threatening to go on without their beloved.

You get the sense that Stewart is also wrestling with those feelings. It's what he tried to explain Monday as he talked about the people who have come to him to share their tragic experiences, to tell him that he'll be scarred but he will survive this. As he said it, it wasn't with the look a man seeking relief.

"I do believe, as time goes on, it will be different every day," he said. "I don't know if it will ever get back to normal. But it will get better."

Better, yes. Normal, sort of. The definition of normal has changed. It now comes with a new set of properties. Why? Because Kevin Ward Jr. may be dead, but he will never go away. The accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park is no longer played on a loop 24/7 on cable news, but it still plays on a loop in Stewart's mind. And it will be played every time he achieves another career milestone, championship celebrations forever parenthesized by tragedy. Stewart knows this.

Stewart has never been a big fan of stick-and-ball sports, so perhaps he doesn't know the story of Woody Hayes, but that's who he is now. He's racing's Woody Hayes.

Hayes is one of the greatest coaches in college football history. He won 205 games and five national championships at Ohio State. His look was so signature that even now, a quarter century after his death, fans attend Buckeyes games in Hayes costumes.

But no biography of the Hall of Fame coach is ever written or produced without showing the saddest moment of his career, when his emotions got the best of him during an intense 1978 Gator Bowl battle with Clemson. When a Tigers defender intercepted a pass and was tackled on the Ohio State sideline, Hayes punched the kid in the throat. The living legend was fired the next morning.
Almost four decades later, that's the first video clip that comes up if you Google "Woody Hayes."

What Hayes did was on purpose. What Stewart did was an accident. But the moment will always be the asterisk to the man.

Stewart has won championships across multiple national series, including three NASCAR Sprint Cup titles. He is the last of his kind, a crossover track-hopping dirt dauber, covered in the same mud and oil as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. When he finally decides to retire from racing, Stewart will be enshrined in every auto racing hall of fame that has ever been founded.

When those enshrinements take place, we already know what questions the media and fans will have for Stewart, no matter how old he may be.

They will ask him to choose his greatest racing moment. They will ask him about his "my way" approach to life and racing. And then they will ask him about Kevin Ward Jr.

That might not be particularly fair. But that's just the way it is.

The closure isn't coming, no matter how badly it's desired.
 
4. NASCAR and the RTA: What next?

Last week I stood at NASCAR's crossroads.

I was at the corner of Gasoline Alley and what used to be called Victory Lane, the aptly titled streets that make up the Lakeside Business Park in Mooresville, North Carolina, aka Race City, USA. I'm at an age now where I'm not that young and I'm not that old, but I have been around long enough that I've earned some perspective.

That's why I was standing here, at the crossroads, always a sucker for a living, breathing metaphor.

I leaned on my truck and looked at race shops, listening to NASCAR talk radio as it blared away about an announcement that had been made earlier in the week. The owners of the sport's top nine organizations had formed what they called the Race Team Alliance. Aside from a press release and a handful of interviews with RTA spokesman Rob Kauffman, details had been fleeting. They want to pool resources. They want to cut costs. "We want more people in the stands, more people to watch racing," Kauffman said.

Now, as those teams practiced at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the pitch hammering through the speakers of my truck had suddenly picked up steam. Why? Because NASCAR had finally ended its silence and responded via an equally vague, borderline condescending media meeting with sanctioning body president Mike Helton. You guys have it all wrong. There's no animosity. "We will continue to do business the way we've done business," Helton said.

The radio crackled ...

They say this isn't a union, but it feels like a union to me!

Does NASCAR have its head in the sand?

Is this going to be a civil war like in IndyCar racing?

This was the first time I had been in Lakeside Park in a long time. I was driving to an appointment in town and decided to take a trip through this area where, for years, I would visit at least once a week, as either a television producer or a sports writer. It was the literal center of the NASCAR industry, packed with race shops that were packed with the people who made the sport go. Grabbing quotes was as easy as showing up and knocking on doors. Carts would crisscross the street, towing race chassis and tires from shop to shop. The occasional roar of engine dynamometers made it sound like Godzilla was stomping through Iredell County. Race fans would ride through in vans, having paid a tour guide a la "See The Homes Of The Hollywood Stars!" But today it was quiet, save for the anger oozing from my radio.

I saw what used to be the headquarters of Roush Racing. The team still owns the building, but long ago moved into a sprawling campus closer to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Same for SABCO, back when Felix Sabates owned his one car, driven by Kyle Petty. That team expanded, struggled and eventually merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing, also long ago moving into nicer digs. The former headquarters of Penske Racing South still showed traces of The Captain's signature silver, black and red paint scheme. It was there that I once talked eventual NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton, then a crew chief, into doing an April Fools TV interview announcing that the team was switching from a Ford Taurus to Lincoln Continentals. Penske also left those buildings behind for a new HQ. It was occupied by Red Bull Racing for five years before that team abruptly packed up and left the sport in 2011.

Across the street I once interviewed Rusty Wallace in his new Lakeside office, excited to field a team for his son. It's gone. A block over I used to visit with Michael Kranefuss about his wins with driver Jeremy Mayfield, then about his merger with Penske. He's gone. Down the hill you could always count on team owner Butch Mock and his driver, Rick Mast, to provide a notebook full of quotes and stories. Gone.

And at the bottom of the hill is what used to be Rudd Performance Motorsports, a team owned and cars driven by Ricky Rudd, who caught the driver-owner wave of the 1990s and hung a shingle in Mooresville. I was there the morning after RPM's greatest triumph, winning the 1997 Brickyard 400. It was my favorite days on the job. But less than two years later I was back at that shop, watching Rudd as he watched everything he'd built be auctioned off for dimes on the dollar to ARCA and late model teams. It was one of my worst days on the job and it was a scene I saw repeated over the next few years as Darrell Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, Brett Bodine and Bill Elliott all ended their tenure as team owners with nothing but a few trophies to show for it.

On one side of the intersection were buildings that once had been occupied by teams that had moved on to a bigger and better racing life. On the other were reminders of once-proud teams and drivers who vanished into nothing more than motorsports memories.

Standing at that crossroads in Lakeside Park only furthered my understanding of why today's big owners feel the need to join forces. They are terrified. They know that the current business model is antiquated. Costs have outrun sponsorships and those sponsorships are drying up anyway. The days of simply asking a sponsor for cash to cover the rising stack of bills is over. One day, be it tomorrow or years from now, the treadmill that all of these owners are on is going to stop. When it does, will they have anything left to show for it other than those trophies?

But I also thought about the people who run NASCAR and its racetracks. Their business model, too, is outdated. The good news is that during their decades-long growth period everything was easy. Everyone wanted to be a part of the sport, from celebrities to CEOs. Most wrote nice checks to do so. The bad news is that so many years of easy order-taking created a generation of salespeople and directors who never really had to learn how to either sell or direct.

Both sides are pained by empty seats. Both sides are concerned with declining TV ratings. Both sides are worried about flagging interest among the coveted "casual fan" flipping channels or looking for something fun to do on Sunday afternoon. But solving those issues is a long-term project. In the short term, those bills still need to be paid.

That's why all parties involved have their eyes on the last great pool of easy cash, the $8.2 billion worth of checks that Fox and NBC will be forking over during the next decade. It's like a couple of wolves circling the last remaining goose in the barnyard.

The question for us all – fans, competitors, media members, anyone with a skin in the racing game – is what happens next? Do NASCAR and the RTA show patience and allow the goose to keep cranking out its golden eggs, no matter how large or small, while they work toward a solution? Or do they rip the goose apart to get the gold and end up with the blood of the sport on their hands?

There is no force on this planet more powerful than motivated, gray-haired rich men. But there is also nothing more destructive.

Gentlemen, you are standing at the crossroads.

5. The 3 is Back, and That is Good

Richard Childress knows that he can't make everyone happy. But he's going to try.

As the covers were pulled off of the race cars that Austin Dillon will drive in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2014, the first to use the famous slanted "3" on their doors since the death of Dale Earnhardt, the look on the face of the man who owns those cars wasn't nervousness. It wasn't anxiousness. It wasn't sadness or even relief. You see, he's already run a 13-year obstacle course of those feelings, over and over and over again.

No, as Childress took a step back and scanned that black-and-white Dow Chemical Chevy, a race car that looked so classic and yet so new all at once, his expression was that of a man filled to the brim with pure excitement.
Now he's hoping that everyone else will eventually join him in that same excitement. But he knows that will never happen.

"There's no way we can ever make 100 percent of everybody happy by the decisions that we make concerning the No. 3," he said following the announcement, when it was just him, the race cars, and the team left in the once-crowded Charlotte Motor Speedway auditorium. "But I also know that the attitude among the fans has really changed. Years ago, after Dale died, so many of them told us we could never bring back the 3.

"Now most of the folks we hear from have been asking when it was coming back. There's still that 5 percent who don't ever want it to come back. Maybe we can win them over one day, too."

As the sun rose Wednesday morning, about six hours before the news conference, I had tested those waters myself. I tweeted a simple question: "Today they announce the 3 returns … How do we feel about that?" To my surprise, but as Childress would later confirm, the vast majority of the responses essentially said, "Yes, it's time" or "Yes, I'm ready now."

But yes, the holdouts are still there. They worry about disrespecting Earnhardt's memory. They worry about how they will react emotionally when they see that No. 3 roll through that fourth turn at Daytona. And they worry that Dillon, 23 years old with only 13 career Cup Series starts, hasn't done enough to deserve the honor of wearing that digit on his door.

I get those points of view. I respect them. As a race fan, someone who knew Earnhardt, and someone who started covering the sport at the peak of his legend, I too have wrestled with those same issues.

But then I look at the face of Richard Childress and see, finally, a happy man. No matter how big a Dale Earnhardt fan you might be, you weren't a bigger Earnhardt fan than Childress.

No matter how much you cried after Earnhardt's death, you didn't cry as much as Childress. And no matter how much you may have stressed, struggled and lost sleep over the future of Earnhardt's number and legacy, you have no idea how many sleepless nights it has caused Childress. The first of which took place on Feb. 18, 2001.

That was the night after Earnhardt's death. When he stood on a floating dock in Daytona at the home of NASCAR president Mike Helton and decided, to hell with it all, he was getting out of racing altogether. It had killed friends before. Now it had killed his best friend. He was done.

But then he remembered a conversation by a campfire seven years earlier. A horrible horse riding accident during a hunting trip in New Mexico had nearly killed Childress and Earnhardt both. That night they made a promise to one another that if one of them ever died, even if it was in a race car, that the other would keep going.

So, when Earnhardt was gone, Childress kept his promise and kept going. But not before shelving the No. 3 (he took 29 only because it was the next one available that was closest to his other car number) until the time was right to bring it back. "If," he's often said to me, "that time ever comes."

Now it has.

Childress knows that the time has finally come because Dillon, his grandson who came to "Pop-Pop" as a teenager and asked to run the number, has worked his way up the ladder to NASCAR's top series, winning races and championships all along the way.

He knows that the time has finally come because he has heard from every member of the Earnhardt family with their blessing. In fact, whenever they've wanted to use the number in their own racing, it was Childress they called to ask for permission.

He knows that the time has finally come because on Wednesday he stood at the podium, looked around the room, and saw the faces of an ever-shrinking fraternity, the people who worked alongside Childress and Earnhardt when they ruled the sport. Men like Don Hawk, who ran Earnhardt's business interests; J.R. Rhodes, who was Earnhardt's public relations rep; and Chocolate Myers, lifelong gas-can man of Earnhardt's "Flying Aces" pit crew. To a man, they nodded and smiled with their approval.

But most of all, he knows that it's time to revive the No. 3 because of another one of the conversations that he had with Earnhardt. Actually, it was a series of conversations, many of which also took place by a campfire.

"We had so many talks about the future of Richard Childress Racing and his team (Dale Earnhardt Incorporated)," Childress said. "We talked about his family and my family and where they all might fit in one day. But, man, we talked so much about the No. 3. What I might do with it one day. Who might drive it when he was retired … "

Then Childress started to beam. The kind of smile he used to sport on a regular basis back when Dale was still around. The smile that had vanished for so long.

"I'm just so excited," he said. "There's an excitement at the race shop. I think about Dale being here for this and I just know he'd be excited, too. Over the years I've worried so much over doing the right things to keep this team up front and doing all that I can to grow Dale's legacy. This does both.

"So many nights I've lain in bed awake and prayed for guidance to make the right decisions. I know Dale's helping me out. And I know he's looking down and watching today and he's seeing that 3 on that race car and he's excited, too."

That's good enough for me. It should be good enough for everyone.