RELATED: Full coverage of RCR '3' announcement
The No. 3 will ride again in NASCAR's premier series, and the son of the driver who made it famous is just fine with the return of one of NASCAR's most iconic car numbers.
Richard Childress Racing has announced that NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Austin Dillon will make the jump to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series next year, and bring with him the No. 3 he's used at the national level to this point. That means the number will return to competition at NASCAR's highest level for the first time since the Daytona 500 in 2001, Dale Earnhardt's final race.
Earnhardt also drove for Childress, who used the number himself before the Intimidator took it over in 1984. Dillon, who is Childress' grandson, has used the No. 3 throughout a career that's included two full seasons on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series as well as a pair of campaigns on the Nationwide tour. Now he'll carry it to the Sprint Cup level, and there's been no bigger proponent of such a move than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
NASCAR's most popular driver has said more than once that he's OK with the idea of his father's former number returning to the Sprint Cup ranks under Dillon's stewardship.
"I think it will be great. It was an iconic number for my father and it means a lot to a lot of his fans. This sport doesn't really retire numbers, and all the numbers have history tied to them for several different reasons. The No. 3 is no different," Earnhardt said this past July at Daytona International Speedway.
"(Dillon) came up through the ranks and he drove the No. 3 in dirt racing and he drove the No. 3 in his Truck Series and Nationwide Series. He has earned the right to run that number as long as he wants. He wants to run it. I think it's not really fair to deny somebody that opportunity. I'm OK with it. I know that might not be the way a lot of people feel or some people feel, but I'm sure it's the minority that feels that way. I think that a lot of people will be telling Austin positive things about it."
Dale Earnhardt made the No. 3 famous, driving it in six of his seven championship campaigns at NASCAR's top level and cultivating a legion of passionate fans in the process. No one has driven a No. 3 car full-time at the Sprint Cup level since Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, now more than 12 years ago. At Homestead-Miami Speedway prior to the final race of the 2011 season, Earnhardt Jr. pointed out that the number predated his father.
"Dad did great things," Earnhardt said then. "He was a great ambassador for the sport, and we're still as a whole reaping the benefits of what he did and what he accomplished. He put us in front of a lot of people. But even before that, that number was Richard's. Richard drove it; somebody else drove it before then. There's a lot of guys in the '50s and '60s that ran that number with success. ... When you put the color and the style with it, it's a little iconic to the sport.'
He added: "Austin's ran that number. I just look at it differently. I don't look at the numbers tied to drivers as much as the history of the number. The number is more of a bank that you just deposit history into, and it doesn't really belong to any individual."
To his credit, Dillon has embraced the history of the number, and shown nothing but respect for its history. Earnhardt Jr. recognizes that.
"Austin's a good kid," Earnhardt in 2011. "He seems to have a great appreciation for what's happening to him and what's going on around him. I would be happy if he wanted to keep (driving the 3). He kind of had to know when he first started that running that number -- if he got this far into the deal, he would have to cross a few bridges like that. That was a tough decision I guess at first, to start running the number for him, knowing what pressures he might face down the road. But I think it would be fine by me for him to do that. I think it's got to get back on the race track one of these days. It can't be gone forever."
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