Austin Dillon brings much more than the legacy of a number with him to the Sprint Cup Series this season.
While the No. 3 has followed him his entire racing career – and even in Little League before that – the 23-year-old North Carolina native does not believe the number should define him.
Nor should its use detract from the accomplishments of the driver who last used it.
Dillon does not shy away from embracing the history which comes with the No. 3 in NASCAR, whether it involves his grandfather and team owner, Richard Childress, or the late Dale Earnhardt, who won six of his seven Cup series championships driving the car number for Childress.
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“The legend of Dale has lived on for a long time and is going to continue to live on forever,” Dillon said. “Dale Earnhardt is not just famous because of the number.
“He is Dale Earnhardt. He was a hero in everybody’s mind, including myself.”
While many fans have embraced the return of the iconic number, there remain a vocal minority who do not.
Until this season, Childress has not used the No. 3 in the Cup since Earnhardt’s fatal last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500, although Dillon and his younger brother, Ty, have used it in the Truck and Nationwide series in recent seasons.
“We all knew this needed to be done the right way,” Austin said. “We wanted to bring it back in a classy way and represent the No. 3 and Dale Earnhardt and their history.”
But there is far more than Earnhardt’s history at Richard Childress Racing.
Childress was a driver long before he moved into ownership. RCR’s headquarters in tiny Welcome, N.C., and the nearby winery are a staple of central North Carolina.
The legacy of a number and a driver must be preserved, but there is a family and company that also must reserve its spot in racing’s future.
Many longtime employees at RCR believe that future lies in Austin and his brother.
“I feel like for me it’s really more the employees at RCR that I know,” Austin said. “I’ve grown up with those guys, know how much heart and soul they put into the race cars.
“I said at our kickoff lunch that we have a great house at RCR. When I cross that bridge (in Welcome), that’s our house.
“When we come here, my job and our teams’ jobs are to represent our house. Hopefully, we bring our house and represent it well at the track.”
There is no doubt Dillon has performed well in that regard so far.
He has already won championships in the Truck (2011) and Nationwide series (2013). He continues to run dirt races on occasion – in fact, he won one Sunday night after winning the pole for the Daytona 500.
“Every day you drive onto our complex, you see Richard’s No. 3 and you see the heritage of that No. 3 there,” said Gil Martin, Dillon’s crew chief, “so to be able to be a part of this, it’s a dream come true for me.
“I’ve watched Austin come from being a little guy to where he’s at today, and it’s been an amazing journey to watch. I think it’s going to be a great run.”
Comparisons will inevitably be made once Dillon’s full-time career in the Cup series officially begins in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
A rookie in the Cup series generally has enough to worry about without having to consider upholding the legacy of a particular car number or driver.
“This is a performance-based business – you hear that every day,” Dillon said. “Even if I was using a different number, there would still be pressure on me because of my family background and RCR.
“Either way you do it, there will be pressure. It might be some more added now, but it should drive you and push you to be competitive and run well.”
After the 500, perhaps later this season or next, Dillon said he hopes to see the day when he is judged solely on his accomplishments.
“I don’t think anybody will ever forget what Dale Earnhardt did or what he did to make the No. 3 famous,” he said. “No one is going to be able to recreate what Dale created.
“I hope we can add to the legacy and create a new chapter. I want to create a name for myself – hopefully I’ve started with what I’ve done in the Nationwide and Truck series. I just want to keep adding to that but most importantly, I’m going to be myself.
“I’m not trying to be anybody else.”