CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In three weeks, the No. 3 Chevrolet will return to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the first time in 13 years.
For car owner Richard Childress, it’s an emotional return to the site where iconic driver Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, is scheduled to be in the No. 3 for this year’s 500 and the rest of the Sprint Cup season.
According to the car owner, it was a scenario discussed even before the seven-time champion’s fatal crash.
“That decision was made 14 years ago when Dale and I were talking about his retirement, about what he wanted to do, how he wanted to help me with the 3 and the team,” Childress said Tuesday at the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. “He wanted to help me put in a driver who could go out and win championships and win races.
“It was not in the plans at all to put anybody in the car until the right person was there. If Dale Jr. wanted to do it, or Kelley Earnhardt, Kerry or whomever, it would be an Earnhardt or one of my family in that 3 car. He and I sat in an old car in the rain one day, and we talked about his retirement as we did several times actually.”
Dillon, the defending Nationwide Series champion, called Earnhardt his hero growing up. Three was the number Dillon wore when he played baseball, basketball and other sports. After wearing it in the Little League World Series, he kept the number when he started racing Bandeloro cars as a teenager.
“It’s pretty cool for me growing up in a family where that number was everything,” said Dillon, now 23. “Most people want to run what their family has as a number. When we started racing Bandeloros, I was 3 and my brother was 21, which was my dad’s number, and it was never an issue. It was going out there having fun.
“I obviously knew it was Dale’s number, but it was awesome. I got to run it through my dirt career and any car I’ve been in, has had that number on the side of it. Now walking into the garage, it’s the number I walk to.”
He understands the connection to the number better than most.
Dillon got to be part of the victory lane celebration when Earnhardt finally won the 1998 Daytona 500 in his 20th try. Other times when Earnhardt would win a race that Dillon couldn’t attend, his grandfather or father would bring pizza home to he and his brother.
Another time he remembered as a kid being filmed in a commercial with Taylor Earnhardt. It showed them playing with toy cars and Dillon recalled how he wouldn’t give up the black No. 3, so Earnhardt’s daughter actually was shown playing with Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 car.
Dillon doesn’t want to give up the No. 3 this time either. Fastest in preseason testing at Daytona, he feels confident about his chances in the season-opening race.
“There is no doubt in my mind we can win the Daytona 500,” Dillon said. “The car was very fast in the test and we’ve got as good a shot as anybody. Speedway racing brings a lot of different opportunities to us and we’re going to try to take advantage of it the best we can.
“Last year at Talladega, I was very close to the white flag, running third. You just have to put yourself in position to win those races. When we do have that opportunity, we have to make the right call at the end. I feel speedway racing is fun and we can win the 500.”
He described it as a great response from the fans so far. It’s a constant topic of conversation, but one which he is happy to engage in.
“I don’t think you can ever get tired of it because I realize what it is to people,” he said. “I feel like all the fans care about it and that’s a good thing. I can talk about it all day, I hope to create more memories like I have the last four years, winning championships. But, I want to remember Dale too.”