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Earnhardt drove the #3 car for most of his career, spanning the early 1980s until his death in 2001. Although he had other sponsors during his career, his #3 is associated in fans' minds with his last sponsor, GM Goodwrench, and his last color scheme — a predominantly black car with bold red and silver trim. The black and red #3 continues to be one of the most famous logos in North American motor racing.
A common misconception is that Richard Childress Racing "owns the rights" to the #3 (fueled by the fact that Kevin Harvick's car has a little #3 as an homage to Earnhardt), but in fact no team owns the rights to this or any other number: However, according to established NASCAR procedures, RCR would have priority over other teams if and when the time came to reuse the number. RCR and the Earnhardt estate do own the rights to various black and red #3 logos used during Earnhardt's lifetime; however these rights would not prevent a future racing team from using a different #3 design. (Also, a new #3 team would, in any case, need to create logos which fit with their sponsor's logos.)
In 2004, ESPN released a made-for-TV movie entitled 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story which used a new (but similarly colored) #3 logo. The movie was a sympathetic portrayal of Earnhardt's life, but the producers were sued for using the #3 logo. In December 2006, the ESPN lawsuit was settled, but details were not released to the public.
It is generally believed that current NASCAR owners have agreed never to use the #3 in Sprint Cup competition again, although this is not official NASCAR policy. Dale Earnhardt Jr. made two special appearances in 2002 in a #3 Busch Series car: these appearances were at the track where his father died (Daytona) and the track where his father made his first Winston Cup start (Charlotte). Earnhardt Jr. won the first of those two races, which was the season-opening event at Daytona. He also raced a #3 sponsored by Wrangler on July 2, 2010 for Richard Childress Racing at Daytona. In a green-white- checker finish he outran Joey Logano to win his second race in the 3.
Otherwise, the #3 was missing from the national touring series until September 5, 2009, when Austin Dillon, the 19-year-old grandson of Richard Childress debuted an RCR-owned #3 truck in the Camping World Truck Series. Austin Dillon and his younger brother Ty Dillon have been driving #3's in various lower level competitions for several years, including the Camping World East Series.
Richard Childress Racing entered the number 3 in the Daytona Truck race on 13 February 2010 painted identically to when Earnhardt drove it, but with Bass Pro Shops as a sponsor. It was driven by Austin Dillon. Oddly, the number 3 was involved in a wreck almost identical to that which took the life of Earnhardt: being spun out, colliding with another vehicle and being turned into the outside wall in turn number three.
Only the former International Race of Champions actually retired the #3, which they did in a rule change effective in 2004. Until the series folded in 2007, Anyone wishing to use the #3 again had to use #03 instead.
In 2009, Tim McGraw released the song "Southern Voice", the song makes a reference to Earnhardt and the number 3 in the line "Number Three Drove it."
In the movie Zombieland, Woody Harrelson's character Tallahasee draws a 3 on his car doors. He does this to pay homage to Earnhardt.
The Christian metalcore band The Devil Wears Prada have a song titled "Number Three, Never Forget" in honor of Dale Earnhardt.