Feb 13, 2014, 4:08 PM EDT
Austin Dillon has been preparing for Feb. 23 for pretty much his entire racing life.
Not only will he kick off the start of his first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series that day in the 56th Daytona 500, Dillon more importantly will bring back the legendary No. 3 onto the Cup racing scene.
It was 13 years ago that Dale Earnhardt last raced the No. 3, tragically killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500. No other driver has competed in the Cup series in the No. 3 since then.
Dillon is the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, for whom Earnhardt won six of his seven Cup championships driving the No. 3.
To his credit, Dillon has gone out of his way to tell media, fans and pretty much anyone else that will listen that he’s not trying to step into Earnhardt’s shoes, nor is he trying to discredit Earnhardt’s famous racing number.
“Dale was so important in driving that number,” Dillon said at Thursday’s NASCAR Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. “He was the guy that made that number what it is today. But Dale Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt not only because of the number, but because he was a hero and created so many things for this sport. The number for me, hopefully I can continue the legacy that it has and keep on moving on with it.”
Dillon has driven the No. 3 in various forms of racing that he’s competed in, including winning the Camping World Truck Series in 2011 and the Nationwide Series championship last season – both coming in rides that sported the infamous number on the doors and hood.
In a sense, even though the No. 3 was Earnhardt’s number in Sprint Cup, it’s also been Dillon’s number throughout his career for nearly 20 years, ever since he got behind the wheel of a go-kart 20 years ago.
Admittedly, Dillon did initially give thought to perhaps not driving the No. 3 once he reached the pinnacle of NASCAR, the Sprint Cup division.
“There’s always thoughts of it,” he said. “I feel like you go through times, and you don’t know what to go through. My family, RCR (Richard Childress Racing), all the people there around us, hearing it from Dale Jr. (who gave Dillon his blessing to drive the No. 3) and people like that, is very influential I feel like to where we’re at today.
“Yeah, I mean, I’ve looked at other numbers and stuff, too. It wasn’t like, ‘That’s the number I want to run. Bam, bam, that’s how I was going to do it or nothing.’ We were very respectful in the fact it was up to my grandfather and the people that were around that number the longest.
“So I’m not a kid that says, ‘Hey, this is what I want, this is what I’m going to get.’ I’ve never been that way. Hopefully, I’m never portrayed that way. I’m a very respectful person and look to the history of the sport. I feel fortunate I’m getting this opportunity, though.”
Among other numbers Dillon considered at one point or other were the 21, 2 and 41 – all of which are taken by Trevor Bayne, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick this season – and even the 33, as an alternative to the No. 3, much like Dale Earnhardt Jr. transitioned from the No. 8 while driving at Dale Earnhardt Inc., to the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports.
Even though Earnhardt left us 13 years ago, his image remains ever-present in the sport, particularly around Daytona with fans still having stickers or wearing clothing to honor their fallen hero. Even in death, Earnhardt merchandise remains a hot seller at souvenir stands and stores.
“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. Dale is going to fly here forever. That’s the coolest thing about everything that’s going on.”
Earnhardt’s mother, Martha, said in a nationally televised interview Wednesday that she had ‘mixed feelings’ about seeing the No. 3 back on the track.
Dillon understands those feelings and is doing everything he can to honor Dale Earnhardt’s memory and legacy.
“The biggest thing is being respectful to all the family that is involved and also just taking this opportunity and hoping that fans are embracing it the right way,” Dillon said. “We’re trying to continue the legacy of the No. 3. I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.
“I think we respect everything that the Earnhardt family has to say. Dale Jr. and everybody has been very supportive of it. It’s been a good thing so far. Everything’s been great. Just continue to move on with what we’re going with.
“I think there was something about the number and the color. That is one thing my grandfather said from the beginning, that we weren’t going to have it black. So luckily the Cheerios car and Dow, everybody, our sponsors, have some black in the color with their sponsor, exactly not a percentage that’s more than 50 percent. I think the most we’ve got on a paint scheme is 60 percent. That is one thing. But we’re definitely respectful and going to keep it color sensitive.”
Fans are expected to honor the return of the three on race day, most likely extending three fingers on the third lap in Earnhardt’s memory. And while Dillon knows there will be some who will forever consider it sacrilege that the No. 3 is back racing, he hopes those critics will at least give him a chance to honor the number and Earnhardt with his performance.
“Everybody’s got their own opinion,” Dillon said. “I feel like hopefully we can win them over as time goes on. That’s all you can do.
“Hopefully they’re open enough to take a look at everything that we’re doing. I think as far as performance and moving forward, hopefully we can win them over.”
Follow me @JerryBonkowski
Oct 25, 2014, 2:28 PM EDT
Stenhouse and Allgaier will start mid-pack on Sunday at Martinsville.
Oct 25, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT
Says first five years in F1 are about surviving, but cannot see the project failing.
Oct 25, 2014, 1:04 PM EDT
Harvick turns in a 19.457-second lap around the Virginia half-mile to top “Happy Hour.”
Oct 25, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
German driver looking forward to tackling the Circuit of The Americas in Austin next weekend.
Oct 25, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
Despite fighting breast cancer for the third time, NASCAR fan Wendy Smith decided to spend $25 to help others even less fortunate. Her gratuity paid off in a big way, earning a brand new $65,000 Chevrolet Corvette.
Oct 25, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
Patrick not afraid to tackle thorny topics yesterday at Martinsville.
Oct 25, 2014, 11:35 AM EDT
On a weekend that carries a lot of significance for honoring NASCAR Hall of Fame-elect inductee Wendell Scott, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. paid tribute in his own way to Scott, earning the pole for Saturday’s Kroger 200 Camping World Truck Series race.
Oct 25, 2014, 11:30 AM EDT
Former HRT driver casts his damning judgement on the current cost crisis in F1.
Oct 25, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT
The demise of both Caterham and Marussia has been on the cards for some time, yet Formula 1 has allowed it to happen.
Oct 25, 2014, 10:03 AM EDT
Despite chilly temperatures in the mid-40s in the 50-minute early-morning session, Jimmie Johnson led all drivers in the next-to-last Sprint Cup practice with a best lap of 98.023 mph, the only driver over the 98 mph mark.
Oct 25, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT
Over 400 people attend special event in celebration of Brabham’s life and legacy.
Oct 25, 2014, 8:30 AM EDT
Lotus driver has failed to score any points in 2014, but feels that next season will hold better things.
Oct 25, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT
Yet another record falls to the Spanish sensation in Malaysia.
Oct 25, 2014, 5:48 AM EDT
Bernie Ecclestone claims that there will be just 18 cars racing in Austin.
Oct 24, 2014, 11:50 PM EDT
In a surprisingly candid admission, six-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson says that while nothing is imminent, the day is coming when he and crew chief Chad Knaus will go their separate ways.
Oct 24, 2014, 11:32 PM EDT
In a bemusing video released Thursday, NASCAR star Kevin Harvick spent one of his recent off nights working the room at an Outback Steakhouse.
Oct 24, 2014, 10:30 PM EDT
On Thursday, Jeff Gordon delivered the one millionth meal served by one of Gordon’s key sponsors, the Drive To End Hunger.
Oct 24, 2014, 10:26 PM EDT
Jimmy Prock, who resigned earlier this week as crew chief for 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, has been hired by rival Don Schumacher Racing.
Jeff Gordon would love to return to Saturday Night Live — and wants to bring Ricky Funck with him (video)
Oct 24, 2014, 7:59 PM EDT
Jeff Gordon said Friday he wants to return to host Saturday Night Live for a second time — and he wants to reprise the hysterical “Ricky Funck” character.
Oct 24, 2014, 6:37 PM EDT
A loose car and two brushes with the wall has put Kevin Harvick in a deep hole at the start of Sunday’s Eliminator Round opener.
Video from NASCAR America
- Marussia also set to miss United States GP 3
- Jimmie Johnson: ‘That day is out there’ when he’ll split with crew chief Chad Knaus 7
- Jeff Gordon would love to return to Saturday Night Live — and wants to bring Ricky Funck with him (video) 0
- 2-for-1: Jamie McMurray wins Martinsville pole, sets track record 0
- Caterham given dispensation to miss Austin and Brazil 3
- Caterham the latest team to fall foul of the Leafield ‘curse’ 1
- Administrator takes over running of Caterham F1 Team 1