DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Some of Austin Dillon's fondest childhood memories include afternoons celebrating in Daytona International Speedway Victory Lane alongside the man who made his car's number "3" an iconic symbol of the sport.
Now 12 years after that driver, seven-time NASCAR champion and Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt passed away, Dillon is preparing to return his grandfather Richard Childress' legendary No. 3 Chevrolet to the Cup Series again.
And one of his biggest supporters is Earnhardt's own son, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I think it will be great,'' Earnhardt said Thursday before the Coke Zero 400 opening practice at Daytona.
"It meant a lot to a lot of his (my dad's) fans. It was an iconic number for my father. But this sport doesn't retire numbers and all the numbers have history tied to them for several different reasons and the "3" is no different.''
"It's not right to deny someone that opportunity. I'm okay with it. I know that may not be how everyone feels, but I'm sure that's a minority that feels that way. A lot of people will be telling Austin positive things about it.''
Dillon, 23, is currently contending for the Nationwide Series championship with the number on his AdvoCare-sponsored Chevy. But although the team says nothing is official yet, the plan is for him to move up to the Sprint Cup Series fulltime ? possibly as soon as next season.
And while the idea of the number competing fulltime again in Cup may be an issue for some of the sport's most sentimental fans, Dillon has never known any different.
"I've been associated with it with everything I've ever been in sports-wise, baseball, basketball, football and racing,'' Dillon said. "It's a sentimental number to our family. Dale Earnhardt made it famous, he made that number in racing. And he's one of my heroes.''
The family has lots of photographs of Dillon being cradled in his father's arms as the Richard Childress Racing team celebrated yet another of Earnhardt's 76 wins. And he still remembers the other Sunday afternoons at home watching NASCAR races on television.
"Being in Victory Lane when he won the Daytona 500 was very special,'' Dillon said.
"Dale was our family hero. When we were sitting around on Sundays watching the race, we watched Dale and pulled for him. He was our guy.
Then, Dillon added with a big grin, "I always wanted him to win because that meant we got pizza after the race. Every time he won, we got to get pizza dinner and that was a big day for us.''
NASCAR is unlike other sports, where a team retires jersey numbers to commemorate a legend. Instead, Dillon has a unique opportunity to pay tribute to his hero. And he has every intention of giving those legions of fans a chance to cheer again.
"It's very heartfelt and sentimental,'' Dillon said reverently choosing his words. "There's a lot behind that number and a huge history that goes along with it. I understand that.
"I'm very fortunate to be running that number right now and I love the pressure that comes with it. I know the people love to see it up front and running well, and that's where I like to be.
"It's a number that motivates me and I've been in it every car I've ever been in, from the very beginning. I'm fortunate my grandfather has let me run that number and it's pretty awesome we've made it this far with it.
"You have a lot of people that are true race fans that are very supportive of it, the guys that really know about racing and the history of it and what's gone on. We'd never abuse the right to use that number.''
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