Earnhardt fans pay tribute at Turn 4

A group of fans mounted a black 3 on a makeshift bar at Turn 4 to pay tribute to "The Intimidator." Ryan McGee/ESPN The Mag

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Lydia Thompson did not start her day standing in Turn 4 on Feb. 18, 2001. But on Sunday, 13 years later, she did. The "50-something" soon-to-be retiree bounced her leg nervously as, a half-mile away, 43 engines fired, about to start the 56th Daytona 500.

"I had to be here," she said. "I had to see it. Though I'm still not sure how I'm going to feel about it."

She was talking about watching the stylized No. 3, Dale Earnhardt's number and perhaps the most famous digit in NASCAR history, return to the racetrack.

Thompson, a South Floridian who estimated this was her 20th Great American Race, wore a black hat, black T-shirt and black sunglasses, all adorned with slanted white 3s. She hadn't worn any of it since the days following her last visit to Turn 4, that day in 2001 when Earnhardt ("my hero") died after hitting the wall that she now stared at, gripping the fence.

"We were sitting over on the backstretch, looking into Turn 3," she recalled. "After the crash we ran over here and stood right here against this same stretch of fence, but you couldn't really see anything. We just knew it was bad. When Dale drove through Turn 3 ... that was the last time I saw the 3 car on this racetrack."

In just a few minutes, she was going to see it again. So were all the fans who joined her here along the chain-link barrier. This time it wouldn't be driven by Earnhardt, but rather by Austin Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress, the car's owner and Earnhardt's best friend.

Dillon, a Sprint Cup Series rookie, wouldn't just be driving by. He'd be leading the field as the pole sitter, taking a green flag that would finally end the long -- and, to many, emotionally divisive -- wait to see the number's return to NASCAR's top series and biggest race. The official countdown started last December, when Childress announced the number would be coming back with Dillon. But to Earnhardt fans, the clock had been running for 13 years.

"There were a lot of us here today that were here on that day in 2001," said Jake Evers, wearing one of the signature swooped 3 ball caps that thousands of fans bought during the mourning period of the '01 season. "I know there are a lot of mixed feelings today. And we've all seen Austin drive this number in other races here, lower-level races. But not the 500."

Joining Evers in the Turn 4 neighborhood was the Ernst family from Louisiana who, as always, had towed in their 1948 Cub teardrop camper, restored from the ground up and featuring a big red 3 affixed to its side. High above the Ernsts was a group of rowdy men, perched on a scaffold stage that was draped in tarps and topped by a homemade bar, the centerpiece of which was a handcrafted, backlit black 3. Parked next door were a pair of couples from central Florida, climbing a makeshift tower mounted in the bed of a pickup truck, its rear window and tailgate wallpapered with 3 stickers, most old and peeling.

"I know some people here are offended," one of the women shouted down as the approaching engines grew louder. "I think it's going to be beautiful ... especially if he pushes Dale Jr. to the win!"

"Here it comes!" someone shouted to interrupt her as the pace car came into view, gliding along the top of the speedway's three-story banking. Up by the wall, cruising through the outside lane of Turn 4, Dillon's black and white Chevy wore a red 3 on the door. But the white one on the roof matched the flags and clothing of the people who watched him drive by.

They fell totally silent, all the way until the car disappeared around the bend.

"Holy s---."

The expletive came from beneath a pop-up tent across the road from the Turn 4 fence. Standing there, jaw dropped, was Brenda Coggins, a cashier from the Florida panhandle. Beneath the tent were drapes of flags, sporting the colors of both Earnhardts. The black-trimmed 3 of Dale Sr., woven in with a curtain of Dale Jr.'s 8s, 88s, and even the Oreo's and Wrangler-sponsored 3s that Little E ran in the Nationwide Series.

"I'm not cussing because I'm mad about seeing it out there," she said, pointing out toward the track. "I'm cussing because, well, damn ... did you see it? I didn't think I would like it. But I really did."

That's exactly the reaction that Childress was hoping for. When he announced the return of the number he knew that there would be resistance. And in the days following that Dec. 11 news conference were admittedly rough, particularly in the stormy waters of social media. In the days leading up to Daytona Speedweeks those fires were stoked by comments during a TV interview with Martha Earnhardt, Dale Sr.'s mother.

"I want so bad to win over that last pocket of Earnhardt fans and RCR fans and 3 fans who are having a hard time with this," Childress said last week, echoing comments he's made for more than two months now. "Once they get to know Austin, they will love him. Once they see how much he loved Dale, they will love him. And once he starts performing, they'll see he's worthy of this honor."

On Sunday morning, Dillon had been more succinct: "If I run up front that'll win them over."

When the green flag was finally waved, that's what he did, leading the first lap of the race by sticking to the outside lane and holding off a charging line of veterans below. As the 3 hammered through Turn 4, several fans instinctively did something they hadn't in 13 years.

They held three fingers into the air.

"The last time I did that here, it was during the July race in 2001, the Earnhardt tribute," said Evers, referring to the practice that season where fans would silently hold up a three-finger salute during the third lap of each Cup race. "I cried that day. Today, when he went by, I let out a yell. It just happened. It felt good."

By Lap 2, Dillon was out of the lead, slowly falling through the field, but eventually working his way back into the top 10 by the time rain halted the race on Lap 38. By then, the raw emotion of the prerace had already been replaced by a sense of business as usual, normalcy. To most in Turn 4, all the wintertime hype, debate and shouting suddenly seemed so dated. It was time to go racing.

But then, the rookie had a rookie night. He ducked in and out of the top 10, but a wiggly loose race car caused one wreck ... and then another, taking out teammate Ryan Newman. The first crash turned fellow freshman Kyle Larson and it happened right in front of the Turn 4 faithful, causing Evers to bury his head in his hands. "Well, hell," he said, tugging on the brim of his cap, laughing, and looking to the sky. "We've still got some work to do with him, don't we, Dale?"

Despite it all, Dillon survived the race's final big crash to finish ninth behind the race winner, who was, naturally, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"You know, I do have an Austin Dillon flag, too," said Brenda Coggins, pulling the banner out of a duffel bag, briefly showing off the signature 3 that matched the others hanging in her tent, before cramming it back away. "I just bought it yesterday. But I haven't put it up yet. He's gonna have to earn that."