CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. envisioned many different ways in which his father's old No. 3 car might one day return to competition in NASCAR's premier series, and he wasn't comfortable with all of them. But the sport's most popular driver couldn't construct a more perfect scenario than Richard Childress's grandson bringing the vehicle back to the top level.
"I'm excited and happy that this is the way it's going to come back. It's going to come back. There's nothing we can do about that. We don't retire numbers around here. And if I could imagine a better scenario -- I mean, this is it," Earnhardt said Tuesday, when Hendrick Motorsports visited the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Austin Dillon, a grandson of Childress -- who was Earnhardt's car owner for six of the Intimidator's seven championships -- will return the No. 3 to the Sprint Cup Series next month. Although Dillon also piloted a No. 3 entry in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck circuits, the Daytona 500 will mark the first time the vehicle has been on the track at NASCAR's premier level since the elder Earnhardt's fatal accident in the same event 13 years ago.
And that's OK with Dale Jr.
"For Richard to have the number still, to have taken care of the number like he has, for him to be able to bring it back with his grandson, has to be an amazing feeling for him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "And Austin's a good kid. I've spent some time with him the last several years, and really enjoy him and his family. ? So this is just a good story. I'm happy for them, and I know Austin's a competitor. He just wants to go out and win, he's not worried about the history as much. He's doing his own thing."
Although Childress used the No. 3 before Earnhardt -- which is why his grandson wanted it in the first place -- it was the latter driver who elevated it to iconic status. The No. 3's return has produced a contrast of reactions with the sport's fan base, even though the majority seem to be in favor of the move. Still, no one understands more than Earnhardt Jr. how his dad's old car number still stirs such strong emotions.
"There's so many guys who are maybe excited about it. There are so many people who don't want it to ever come back. There's guys that will tell Austin or Richard that they haven't watched a race since 2001, and they're going to start, or they're never going to watch again. There are so many good, positive and negative opinions about it, and I know Austin's probably already heard them all," Earnhardt said.
"But I think over time, once it gets out there, once it becomes normal and people see Austin's personality and understand what kind of character he is and what he's trying to achieve -- I mean, this is a guy who's trying to do his thing. He's had that number throughout his whole career as a driver, and even before them when he was playing stick-and-ball sports in high school. So this number has a meaning to him, and it has a meaning to his family, and Richard. And I think everybody will get more and more comfortable with it, and the people that aren't, I think they're a small group. I think that most people are looking forward to it, and wondering what those emotions will be when they see it on the track for the first time at Speedweeks."
Earnhardt's teammate Jeff Gordon, once the elder Earnhardt's biggest rival on the track, agreed.
"If it was a black-and-silver Goodwrench car, No. 3, and it had 'Earnhardt' on the door, then that would definitely bring back a lot of memories and thoughts," Gordon said. "But to me, that's Austin Dillon, that's Richard Childress Racing. I'm looking at it more as a competitor, but I think it'll be great for the sport if they go to Victory Lane, they do well. There's a lot of core fans out there that have missed being in Victory Lane, and I think they want to see that."
Earlier Tuesday when Richard Childress Racing visited the Sprint Media Tour, Childress said the basis for his decision was a conversation he had with the elder Earnhardt 14 years ago, when the Intimidator agreed that his number should continue -- with the right person behind the wheel, such as a member of the Earnhardt or Childress families -- after his driving days were done.
"That decision was actually made 14 years ago when 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 to go out and put a driver in it that could win championships and win races," Childress said. "It was not in the plans at all to put anybody in the car until the right person was there. If Dale Jr. would have wanted to do it, or (daughter) Kelley or (son) Kerry, or one of my family (members) would get in that 3 car. But that decision was made 14 years ago as me and him sat in an old car in the rain talking about his retirement, and on several occasions, actually."
Earnhardt's, whose current No. 88 mirrors the car number his grandfather Ralph Earnhardt once drive, chose not to take over his father's number. When he left the organization his dad founded, Dale Earnhardt Inc., after the 2007 season, he instead moved to Rick Hendrick's team. Even so, he once harbored concerns that the number might eventually return to the Sprint Cup level with a team other than RCR, or with a driver he wasn't fond of.
"I never had any interest in doing that," Earnhardt Jr. said of taking over the No. 3. "I thought that would be a bit too big of a bite to chew for me. I enjoy where I'm at. I want to retire with Rick. I've really enjoyed working with him, and what we've been able to accomplish together, and the relationship that we have. I love Richard like an uncle or a family member. We have a great relationship as well. But I just never understood why we would want to do that. It never dawned on me that that needed to happen, or should happen. This is how it should happen. This is what should happen, with Austin and Richard. This means more, I think, for Richard, and for that company and all the guys who have been there and seen Austin come up through the ranks. I mean, this is the way it should be."
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