In the years between Dale Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 and 2014, no one drove the No. 3 car at NASCAR’s top level.
Still, Earnhardt fans showed up to races decked out in his gear.
The No. 3 has been back on the track in the Sprint Cup Seriessince 2014, when Austin Dillon took it over, and fans of the No. 3 remain in the stands.
But Dillon’s No. 3 is stylized the same as Earnhardt’s, so how does he know if the fan likes him or if it’s some older Earnhardt memorabilia?
“When it says ‘Dow’ on it,” Dillon said referring to Dow Chemicals, one of his sponsors, “that’s another feather in my cap. I’m like, dang, that’s awesome. Seeing them with a 3 shirt or Austin Dillon shirt means a lot for me.”
In the 2 1/2 years since Richard Childress announced his grandson would be the first person to race the No. 3 car full-time since Earnhardt’s death, Dillon is putting together some of his best performances in NASCAR’s top series.
He’s 10th in points going into Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, and his three top-five finishes this season are one better than his other two seasons combined.
When it says Dow on it, that’s another feather in my cap. I’m like, dang, that’s awesome. Seeing them with a 3 shirt or Austin Dillon shirt means a lot for me.
Austin Dillon, on differentiating his fans from those of the late Dale Earnhardt
“It’s been a solid year for sure,” Dillon said earlier this month at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord. “Things are coming easier. The hard work is still double the amount that we put in the first year. But you feel like you fight and fight for the entire race and sometimes it just happens for you. Things have been going well and that’s created from everyone at the shop.”
Earnhardt’s death in 2001 remains one of the most shocking moments in auto racing history. The seven-time Winston Cup champion was known simply as Dale, or by his “Intimidator” nickname.
And sometimes, just by three fingers in the air.
Dillon grew up adoring Earnhardt, who raced for Dillon’s grandfather in winning each of his seven championships. Childress has pictures of Earnhardt holding Dillon as a tyke, and Dillon wore No. 3 when playing little league sports.
After Earnhardt’s death, Childress kept the license to the No. 3 car but didn’t race it. He said NASCAR gave it to RCR, and eventually he began paying for the license each year so he could officially control the number.
Waiting for the right time
Childress wanted the right driver, and the right time, for the No. 3 to return.
Dillon, 26, was making a name for himself in the late 2000s. By 2010 he was the Truck series rookie of the year, and he won the championship the following year. In 2013 he won the Nationwide Series championship, and that December Childress announced Dillon would be the driver of the No. 3 car in its return to the Cup series.
“I think the first thing is being accepted by all the race fans,” Childress said. “I’d say 99 percent or better welcomed us bringing it back. And now you can’t believe each week wherever I go – I was somewhere this week and I bet I had four or five people who said, ‘I’m so glad you brought the 3 back and kept it in the family.’”
Clearly Dillon understands the history of the number, and that there’s a weight that comes along with it.
Though not a perfect corollary, when LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami, he changed his jersey number from 23 to 6 out of respect for Michael Jordan. James is now back in the 23 in Cleveland.
Continuing a legacy
But does an athlete want to create a legacy or continue one?
“I love continuing this legacy,” Dillon said firmly. “I want to win in this number. I want to be a winner in this number. I’ve won in it with all the other series and I want to do it in the Cup series. I think we have the group that can do it and we just need that next step.”
Childress referred to Hank Williams Jr.’s song “Standing in the Shadows” when asked about Dillon taking over the No. 3. Taking from the song, Childress said “it’s hard to stand in the shadows of a great, great number,” but that Dillon has done just that while being successful.
Childress has seen his grandson gets more comfortable behind the wheel at knowing what the car needs. Dillon had a third-place finish earlier in the month at Talladega as everyone chases after Gibbs drivers who have won six of the past seven races.
Childress admits it will be emotional if Dillon can finally get a win in the No. 3 car at the Cup level. Could it happen this weekend in his home state?
“I love the state of North Carolina and there’s only three or four of us left that are from this state,” Dillon said. “In front of your family and friends it means a lot. To have your first Cup victory be here, that would be huge.”