Family ties bind Austin Dillon to Dale Earnhardt's iconic No. 3

Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick discuss changes coming to NASCAR championship format during Media Days in Charlotte


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Austin Dillon is not poaching Dale Earnhardt’s number.

He is honoring it.

He is honoring the memories, good and bad, of family ties.

He is honoring the memory of doing a victory “hat dance” with Earnhardt and his crew after Dale finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998.

He is honoring the memory of fighting with Taylor Earnhardt, Dale’s daughter, over a diecast No. 3 for a TV commercial shoot they did when Austin was 9 years old. Austin, ever persistent, got the car he wanted. Taylor got stuck with a Jeff Gordon model.

He is honoring the memory of all those pizzas delivered to his home following one of Dale’s victories — a family tradition in the household of his father, Mike Dillon, and grandfather, Richard Childress.

Family.

The conversation begins and ends there.

“The only reason we’re bringing this back is family,” Childress said Tuesday during the annual NASCAR Media Tour.

Earnhardt and Richard Childress are forever linked in this sports, blood brothers for one of the most glorious runs in NASCAR history from the time Childress snagged a Wrangler Jeans sponsorship and stuck Earnhardt behind the wheel of his No. 3 Pontiac in 1981.

That No. 3 quickly sped away from the pack, as Earnhardt switched car models and won six of his seven NASCAR Cup titles driving a Chevy for Richard Childress Racing. A tragic turn on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001 changed the course of the No. 3 forevermore, when Earnhardt crashed and died from blunt force trauma to the head.

Childress, who owned the number, shut it down. Kevin Harvick, the driver who would replace Earnhardt on the race team, was assigned No. 29.

After 13 years, the No. 3 will once again ride for a NASCAR Cup title. It is Dillon’s to keep as he begins his rookie season in NASCAR’s elite division.

It is every bit his number as it was Earnhardt’s.

Dillon has worn it at Little League baseball and Pop Warner football games. He has the No. 3 on his car the first time he got into racing, driving a Bandolero minicar, when he was 15. The number has followed him as he rose through the ranks, from dirt racing to trucks to the Nationwide Series and as a champion in each of NASCAR’s progressive levels of competition.

It roars back into action in Daytona in a few weeks, as Dillon, now 23, chases his own legacy in a Chevrolet SS. Is there a better place to start than the Daytona 500, with the iconic No. 3 wrapped around his car?

“I feel like I’m the guy in the car but the history that was created with that number is Dale’s,” Dillon said. “I feel that’s pretty special.”

There are people who aren’t cool with this. At all. It’s a numbers thing. No. 23 will always be Michael Jordan. No. 19 will always be Johnny Unitas. No. 3 will always be the Babe in baseball and the Intimidator in NASCAR.

It’s a valid debate worth consideration, but maybe people would feel differently if they knew a little more of the back-story:

Dale Sr. signed off on this 14 years ago, during a rainy day conversation with Childress in a street-car.

“Dale and I were talking about his retirement and what he was going to do when he retired and how he wanted to help me with the 3 and the team by putting a driver out there who could win championships and win races,” Childress recalled Tuesday.

“It was not in the plans at all to put anyone in the car until the right person was there. If Dale Jr. would have wanted to do it … it would be an Earnhardt or one of my family.”

Austin Dillon is family, not a poacher.

“I think it will be great,” Dale Jr. said. “It was an iconic number for my father and it means a lot to a lot of his fans,”

If Junior and Childress are all good with it, you should be fine, too.

Dale Earnhardt’s spirit is probably popping open a can of beer somewhere in the hereafter, honoring the kid who danced around with him in Daytona 16 years ago.

The No. 3 is back. This is a good thing.

gdiaz@tribune.com Read George Diaz’s blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego

 

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