WELCOME, N.C. — Kevin Harvick will be gone from Richard Childress Racing at the end of this season, but the No. 3 could be back soon according to the legendary car owner.
With Harvick scheduled to leave RCR at the end of the season to join Stewart-Haas Racing, it leaves a void likely to be filled by Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon, who drives a black No. 3 on the Nationwide Series.
For this season, Dillon will run a limited number of races in a No. 33 Cheerios-sponsored car. The No. 3 is currently limited to Dillon’s efforts in the Nationwide Series and his younger brother Ty running it in the Camping World Truck Series.
“I hope Ty Dillon wins the championship in the 3, and Austin Dillon wins the championship in his 3,” Childress said at the 31st annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I haven’t had any plans of putting the 3 back in Cup, but this past season with Austin running the Nationwide (Series) as much as he did, it’s re-energized the fans. There have been cards, calls and e-mails. When we said he was going to run the No. 33 at Daytona, overwhelmingly people wanted to see the 3.”
The No. 3 has been retired since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. Since then, it’s been debated whether NASCAR should retire the number or if Childress, who raced the number a decade before he hired Earnhardt as a driver, should bring it back on the track.
Childress said since his grandsons have been running the No. 3 on the Nationwide and Truck circuits that Earnhardt’s name has been brought up more in conversations.
“We’ve got people talking about Dale more,” Childress said. “That’s what I want to see. I want people to never forget who Dale Earnhardt was and the great things he did in the 3. If we keep it in the family with Austin, Ty or a young Earnhardt one day, who knows?”
Six of Earnhardt’s seven championships came in the No. 3, and the black paint scheme debuted in 1988 made it as iconic as Richard Petty’s No. 43 on a light blue background.
While it sure sounds like Childress wants to bring back the number, he insists a final decision hasn’t been made. He even made the argument if Earnhardt was still around, he would be OK seeing one of Childress’ grandsons race the number in the Cup Series.
“We haven’t made any commitments, although the fan outpouring so far has been 85 percent positive,” he said. “You’ll never get everybody to be 100. But, if I can make something which has them thinking more about Dale Earnhardt, where they talk more about Dale Earnhardt and the great things he did.... I know he would be proud if he was here today to put Austin Dillon in it, Ty Dillon in it or Dale Jr. He would want to see family and I know he looked at those kids as family.”
Right now, the focus is getting the three cars driven by Harvick, Paul Menard and Jeff Burton back to RCR’s standards. Harvick finished eighth in the 2012 standings, but the other teams muddled their way to finishes of 16th and 19th in the points.
“We’re so focused on being competitive like we should be,” he said. “2012 was a disappointment, but all teams go through that. If you look at Roush, Hendrick or whoever, you go through your highs and your lows. Last year just happened to be ours.”
The lone highlight was Harvick’s victory at Phoenix. The year before, Childress cars won five races including Menard’s victory at Indianapolis. Overall, Childress has 101 wins as a car owner, ranking him fifth on the all-time list.
It made last season extremely hard to take.
“It almost makes you not want to be there when you’re running like we did this year,” he said. “You know you have to fight, fight, fight, and never give up. What we’ve put together for 2013, our plans are to run really well.”
There was a meeting where Harvick told Childress about his plans once their contract was up. It wasn’t a surprise to the car owner, who knew his lead driver had been talking to other teams.
The announcement wasn’t scheduled to come out until the Sprint Cup Series banquet was over, but it slipped out early. Childress maintains everything is fine betwen the two and the goal is to end the partnership with a championship for the No. 29 team.
“All I want to do is win this championship,” Childress said. “When he leaves, I want it to be on a high note. I want to have a long-term friendship with Kevin, even when this is over. With any of the drivers I’ve had in the past, I still have great relationships with them. I still pull for ole’ Clint Bowyer. I don’t want him to beat our cars, but I have a great relationship with these guys. That’s what this is all about. Life is too short to feel otherwise.”