Nine months ago, many eyebrows went up throughout the Texas Motor Speedway Victory Theater. As Richard Childress announced that Advocare would sponsor his grandson, Austin Dillon, for 20 races in the 2012 Nationwide series, he then dropped the bomb that with the blessing of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Teresa Earnhardt, the car would feature the stylized ‘3’ that the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. made famous with 72 wins and seven Cup championships. Childress quickly followed that up by saying he has “no intentions” of ever fielding a car with that famous number in the Sprint Cup Series again. At that moment, you could hear all the die-hard fans of “The Intimidator” breathe a sigh of relief, but now that tiny crack in the door that Childress left open is starting to widen.
Dillon did the celebratory burnout in the No. 3 for the first time after winning the Feed The Children 300 at Kentucky Speedway a week and a half ago and was thrilled to continue the success of that famous number. “It's just awesome for all the fans that support me. I really enjoy driving the No. 3 car. You know my grandfather has allowed me to do it and I can't thank him enough. I just want to thank all the fans that support us each and every week.” That put the rookie four points behind Elliott Sadler in the Nationwide Series standings and well on his way to winning the rookie-of-the-year honors. Obviously, the next step for Dillon is a jump to the Sprint Cup Series naturally raising the question. Will he be allowed to race that No. 3 on the circuit for the first time since Earnhardt’s death in 2001?
Childress still says he has no plans to do it, but won’t completely rule it out.
“Dale Earnhardt made that stylized 3 famous,” Childress said. “We don’t have any intentions of running the stylized 3 in Cup. That always leaves an opening. I wouldn’t let anyone else other than an Earnhardt or a Dillon drive the 3. I look at the 3 as family. I drove it, I was fortunate. I didn't do near as good as some of these other drivers did. It's special because you have so many fans who want to see the No. 3 and then you have some who question running the No. 3.”
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This past weekend at Daytona International Speedway, the 22-year old Dillon acknowledged the added stress of both moving up and what bringing the No. 3 to the Sprint Cup Series would bring so he’s not too antsy. "I enjoy running it where I'm at right now," he said. "It's going great. There comes a lot of pressure with that number, so moving up would just be more pressure. It pushes you harder. We'll see. I’d be excited to run it. Not many people can say they have numbers with great history. I love seeing the fans react to it and the different reactions that you get. It’s fun having meaning behind a number. I still would love the approval of my grandfather and the guys. Seeing more fans each and every week come up to him is the best way to do it; the more people coming to him wanting to see it.”
But many fans of the late Earnhardt, Sr. have chastised Childress for not “officially” retiring the No. 3 and some wish NASCAR, which owns all of the car numbers and leases the rights to the car owners would step in and retire it. The league has only retired one number in its history and that is the No. 61 that the late Richie Evans drove on his way to becoming the king of the Modified Series. No other league, except Major League Baseball, has ever retired a competitor’s number. Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 will never be worn on the diamond again once Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees retires.
Childress maintains that he will forever protect the No. 3 and only let the Dillons, their kids or an Earnhardt drive it in any of the NASCAR series races. He admitted in Texas last November that the only reason he brought the number back came after serious thought and a pleading grandson. "Austin said, 'Pop-Pop, I want to use your number,'" as Childress recollected the conversation. "I said, 'Austin, that was my number, but Dale made the number famous.' He said, ‘Well, it's still your number. I want to run your number.’ How you going to tell your grandkid no on something?”
“The 3 has so much winning tradition, and Dale made that number famous,” Childress added.
“I know he'd be proud to see him (Dillon) run it.”
Dillon drove that No. 3 American Ethanol Chevrolet to a fifth-place finish in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 in April during the first stop of the Nationwide Series in Texas. He plans to return for the O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge on Nov. 3 as part of the AAA Texas 500 NASCAR tripleheader weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.