A few years back, while sitting in his motorcoach in the infield at Dover International Speedway, I asked Richard Childress about running the No. 3 again. I was surprised by his answer.
"We are running it," he said, beaming. With that, he pulled out a photo album with pictures of his grandson, Austin Dillon, driving a black late-model dirt car emblazoned with the legendary, forward-slanting No. 3.
Fast forward to last weekend at Iowa Speedway where Dillon, now 20 and still driving the No. 3, won his first career Truck race. Until that moment, Dillon had been more of a curiosity than a driver to be taken seriously. He does, after all, have the leg up that his grandfather has given him, so the skeptical eye justifiably wonders if he's really good or really fortunate.
While one win doesn't make a career, it's validation enough that Dillon's rising presence has to do with more than just his membership in the lucky gene club. It's also enough to make you wonder if someday, we might be seeing the black No. 3 back in the Cup Series with a Childress, not an Earnhardt, behind the wheel.
Yahoo! Sports recently talked to Dillon about that, what it means to race Dale Earnhardt's legendary number and what his plans for the future are:
1. Y! Sports: Did you feel the win coming or did it surprise you a little bit?
Dillon: Previous weeks, we'd been pretty fast leading up to Iowa, and it was just a matter of time. We'd led laps at both Texas and Michigan.
Going into Iowa, we got the pole. I'd had a lot of laps at that track. It was one of the only tracks I'd been to and had more than one race on. Kind of thought it would be a good opportunity for us – a place that we could potentially win.
And we went in there and mentally didn't have any mistakes and just succeeded. It was good.
2. Y! Sports: Does winning that race give you a confidence that, 'Yeah, I can do this?'
Dillon: It does, definitely. When you can go to a place and get a win like that, it takes a lot off your shoulders. Now going into it, you've done it already, why not just go and do it again.
It proved to me that we're racing for the right reasons. That you can win against the best.
Do you feel because you've gotten a leg up because of your grandfather that you need to prove yourself maybe even more so than most people?
I put it on myself to go out and compete, and it's almost like a challenge to me to prove to people, yeah. I'm doing it for the right reasons, not just because of my grandfather, and that I can do it.
I just put a lot of pressure on myself and challenge myself each and every time I get into a truck or whatever racing level it might be.
3. Y! Sports: Whose decision was it to run the black No. 3?
Dillon: I wanted to run the number when I started. I started in the bandeleros and wanted to run it and my grandfather said, 'Well go ahead and run it, have fun with it.'
Back then it was just some fun racing in some lower series. And we kept moving up with it and ran it in the dirt, and did very well with it in the dirt, and was able to take it with us to the trucks.
I love it. It's a fun number to run. It makes people in the stands really stand up and cheer, especially when it's running well. People have run well in that car before, and fans want that number to run well, so it makes it a challenge.
4. Y! Sports: If you're fortunate enough to make it to the Cup Series, do you want to drive the 3?
Dillon: I'm having a lot of fun running it. I have no problem running it. It's really up to my grandfather and whoever it kind of comes down to. But I have no problem running it. I love running it.
5. Y! Sports: Considering the family business, have you always wanted to race?
Dillon: I played other sports before racing. I played in the Little League World Series in baseball in 2002 when I was 12 years old. After that I played a few more years – I played some in high school.
But racing was always there, and one day I went and tested Bandelero at the quarter-mile in Charlotte and I knew that's what I wanted to be was a race car driver ever since. I've had some great opportunities and been able to go and make the best of them right now. It's been a lot of fun.
6. Y! Sports: Who would you compare your driving style to?
Dillon: You know, my grandfather always said I remind him of Cale Yarborough. But I never got to watch him race very much; I was too young then. I guess his aggressive style is similar to the way my grandfather looks at me.
The person today, I really think Jeff Burton, the way he attacks – I've been able to watch him – the way he attacks the track. He's very aggressive, runs lots of laps in practice, and we have similar driving styles. I don't know if we look the same in our car or anything, but he drives really hard; harder than what people can see usually.
But, I don't know who I would compare myself to. I hope I create my own style.
7. Y! Sports: You go to High Point University. What are you studying to be if not a race car driver
Dillon: Communications. I feel like that's the major I want to be later on if I want to be in the company, whether it be PR or whatever it may be. Just representing yourself well, being able to talk to people. And it bodes well with sponsors as well.
8. Y! Sports: Is it tough balancing the two – racing and school?
Dillon: It is, especially when you're trying to focus with the racing part. The biggest importance, to me, is making it in racing. But you've got someone like your grandfather wanting you go to college, it's tough. But High Point University has done a great job of making it easy on me.
9. Y! Sports: What is your plan for next season?
Dillon: We're going to run the whole truck season this season and try to win that championship. We're only 276 points out, in seventh right now.
Next year we kind of have the same plan, try to run for a truck championship again, and we might run a few Nationwide races here and there.
But try to take out time. You know, we're at a point in my career where we can try to learn how to win races and get the experience we need before we move up. We don't want to move up too quick.
9½ Something about my grandfather that most people don't know is …
Dillon: Everybody knows that he's a big hunter, and that's something that we all share – the outdoors. Hunting and outdoors is a big part of our family, which is pretty cool since our sponsor is Bass Pro Shop.
He loves going to Montana and hanging out with his family. He loves being with his family, and that's pretty important to him – family values.
Another big thing is me going to school and going to college is one of his biggest points.