COMMENTARY | Instant popularity, and instant expectations.
Those are two things Austin Dillon can expect if he starts out the 2014 season driving a No. 3 car in the Cup series for Richard Childress Racing, something that is becoming more and more likely.
Richard Childress directly addressed the top this week, saying that no decision has been made but "we're definitely in the process of discussing that."
He laid down some ground rules - most importantly that only one of his relatives or an Earnhardt would drive a No. 3 car.
Reading between the lines, if this discussion is already being held, you can pretty much put your money on the No. 3 car with Austin Dillon racing a full Cup schedule in 2014. Whether it's in place of the 29 car driven currently by the soon-to-be-exiting Kevin Harvick, or as a fourth RCR team (if Ryan Newman or Kurt Busch take over for Harvick), I'm thinking the 3 car is back next year.
Good and bad for Dillon
There would be both positive and negative repercussions for Dillon if he drives the No. 3 car next season in Cup.
On the positive side, Dillon would gain an instant fan base of many millions - who would root hard for him every week based on their allegiance in the past to Dale Earnhardt Sr., the man who made this number one of the most famous in NASCAR's history. Dillon's 2014 run in the No. 3 car would be among the most popular rookie campaigns in the history of the sport (yes, even more popular than Danica Patrick).
On the negative side, the No. 3 comes with expectations.
Austin is a talented young driver and has a lot of potential to compete for wins and top finishes if he gets the proper equipment from RCR. But if Dillon gets into the No. 3 car and stinks up the show (which I doubt, but you never know what will happen), fans will not be happy and probably forget that he is a rookie. They'll wonder whether it was a good idea to bring back the No. 3 car.
So far, the Dillon boys have done a great job with the number in Nationwide and Trucks, but Cup is a whole different ballgame.
Bigger stakes and bigger expectations.
A number associated with greatness
If he drives the No. 3 in 2014, Dillon will be driving a car whose number is associated only with greatness - perhaps the only one left.
The 43 car will always be associated with King Richard Petty and his 200 wins and seven titles. But since Petty retired in 1992, everyone and their mother has driven the 43 car; so it hardly has the same aura as it once did.
The 21 car was always great with a laundry list of NASCAR greats driving it for the Wood Brothers, but has lost its luster since the Wood Brothers team went part-time.
The No. 3, though, is still considered to be Dale Earnhardt's car and its luster has not faded, as no one has driven it in Cup since Feb. 18, 2001, that fateful day in Daytona that forever changed the sport.
Numbers are not retired in NASCAR, so it made sense that Childress would reuse it one day. Many hoped Dale Earnhardt Jr. would go to RCR and use the number, but that never happened and their hopes were dashed when he moved to Hendrick Motorsports.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is his own person and is wise to blaze his own trail and avoid living in the footsteps of his dad. Dale Jr. won a Nationwide race in a #3 car in 2010 and then said it was the last time he would ever race the number. Great move in my opinion.
Glad to see it back
If things go as I expect and the 3 car returns next season, I'll be glad to see it happen. It will be a great story for the sport, and perhaps bring back some fans who turned away after Earnhardt's death or in the years since.
Austin Dillon is a strong enough driver to handle the pressure that will no doubt come with this ride, and I expect RCR will make it their focus that the 3 car is up to snuff and not lagging on track.
The fans will love to see it out there every week, even some who didn't root for Dale back in the day, just because it's such a huge part of the sport's history.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
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