Tom Sorensen

Regarding the one driver who was never intimidated by Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3

NASCAR driver Austin Dillon’s team pushes the car to Victory Lane after he ran out of gas while during a burnout after winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway early Monday morning.
NASCAR driver Austin Dillon’s team pushes the car to Victory Lane after he ran out of gas while during a burnout after winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway early Monday morning. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

You don’t have to be a NASCAR fanatic to cheer the fuel-less No. 3 car being pushed Sunday into Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Victory Lane.

The 3 car had not won a race since 2000. How long ago was 2000? George W. Bush beat Al Gore in the Presidential race, the Olympics took place in Australia and cell phones were just becoming something everybody needed.

Dale Earnhardt, who died in 2001, made the 3 car respected and feared. If he wasn’t leading the pack, he filled the mirror of whoever did. He drove and acted the way many fans feel they would if they were in his position.

When Earnhardt died after hitting the wall at Daytona International Speedway, Richard Childress, who had driven the 3 car before Earnhardt and owned the team, changed the car’s number to 29. After talking to members of the Earnhardt family to seek their consent, Childress brought the 3 back in 2013. He promoted his grandson Austin Dillon from the Truck series and Nationwide series (he was a champion in both) to drive. Dillon had competed in the Cup series before, but never full-time.

The pressure to win was enormous. To some fans, there was only one driver of the 3, and he was gone. After Earnhardt’s death, I talked to a race fan who had taken a picture of a cloud formation above the track. He believed the clouds formed a 3. He believed so strongly that when when the interview ended and I was on the way to my car, I paused to take a a final look. I saw it, too.

Whatever you think about anybody other than Earnhardt driving the 3 car, Dillon ran a masterful race Sunday. The last smoothie you drank had more in the cup you threw away than Dillon had gas in his Chevrolet. But he coaxed the car, waited to make a move until the end. His timing was impeccable. The gas tank didn’t go empty until the brief post-race celebration.

Although Dillon calls Earnhardt the best driver ever, the car was not too big for him, the legend not to great. To succeed on the track, a driver can’t back down, and Dillon never has.

Sunday was a great day for Dillon, for Childress, and for 3-car fans.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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