DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew the iconic No. 3 his late father made famous was bound to come back some day.
Although car owner Richard Childress removed No. 3 from competition following the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, it seemed it had never gone away — kept alive by Earnhardt’s legion of fans who flew banners and purchased all manner of merchandise bearing the number immortalized by the late seven-time NASCAR champion.
“It’s a symbol for my father and that stylized number and that flag is a symbol to him,’’ Earnhardt Jr. said. “When somebody raises that flag up over their motor home, or wherever they may fly it, it’s a way for them to show their support and their fandom for my father.’’
While most believed Earnhardt’s 39-year-old son would be the rightful heir to the No. 3, Earnhardt Jr. was never completely comfortable with that notion or the weighty burden that would accompany it. It was hard enough, after all, to carry on his father’s name, let alone his racing legacy.
Now, as NASCAR prepared to unveil its 2014 season, the sport has welcomed the return of the No. 3 to the track for the first time since Earnhardt’s tragic death.
With Earnhardt Jr. piloting the No. 88 Chevrolet fielded by Hendrick Motorsports, it seemed the next logical choice to drive the No. 3 was someone from Childress’s family. And in Austin Dillon, the 23-year-old grandson of the NASCAR car owner, RCR seemed to have a perfect candidate to activate that number in his rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series.
“It’s great,’’ Dillon said of the opportunity to make his Sprint Cup debut, driving the iconic No. 3 for his grandfather’s race team. “To be able to work for a company, every time I cross the railroad tracks [near RCR’s headquarters] in Welcome, N.C., it’s special. I’ve enjoyed being a part of RCR.
“The other day it was really awesome to be able to be part of the kickoff luncheon,’’ Dillon added. “The guys were fired up. I think it’s a new life at RCR.’’
Dillon understands the reason for all the enthusiasm at RCR’s race shop was that No. 3 will be back on the track.
While most everyone supported its return, the matriarch of the Earnhardt family, Martha Earnhardt, expressed her misgivings last week when she told Fox Sports 1, “I have mixed feelings because I was told that I would never see a No. 3 on the racetrack after Dale died.
“I can understand it to a point. I know it was Richard’s number when he drove and this is his grandson, and I understand that. As long as they don’t make it look like the No. 3. If they painted it a different color . . . I can sort of deal with it, but I don’t want to see the black No. 3 just like Dale’s. But that’s not my decision.’’
Childress said Saturday he spoke with Martha Earnhardt and reassured her that, while the car’s number would be slanted forward, it would not be painted all black.
“I understand her feelings,’’ Childress said. “We’ve talked. She doesn’t have a problem with him running. What she said is [she] doesn’t want it to look exactly like Dale’s car, solid black. Everything is great.’’
While his grandmother had the lone dissenting opinion, Earnhardt Jr. has been largely supportive of the return of his father’s number.
“Once we get out on the racetrack, Austin’s a competitor,’’ Earnhardt Jr. said. “He’s a guy you’re going to want to race — and have to race — to win races. You won’t even think about the 3 on the side.
“That will sort of become normal. I’m glad that it’s back. It was going to come back.’’
While Earnhardt Sr. made his mark in the No. 3, Dillon made his own mark, too, driving the No. 3 in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2010 and the series championship in 2011. He moved to the Nationwide Series and again won Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 before winning the series title in 2013, driving the No. 3.
It prepared him to grasp and embrace the challenge of driving a racecar with his hero’s number on it.
But Dillon is no dilettante. He knows the history behind it. After all, he was 7 years old when he was photographed in Victory Lane, standing next to Earnhardt and the Harley J. Earl Trophy after Earnhardt’s breakthrough victory in the 1998 Daytona 500.
Saturday marked the 16th anniversary of Earnhardt’s one and only victory at the 500.
“I think Dale was so important in driving that number,’’ said Dillon. “He was the guy that made that number what it is today. But like I said earlier, Dale Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt not only because of the number, but because he was a hero and created so many things for this sport.
“The number for me, hopefully I can continue the legacy that it has and keep on moving on with it.’’
One of eight drivers vying for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the Sprint Cup Series, Dillon seemed uniquely positioned to advance the No. 3’s legacy, driving for his grandfather’s three-car stable. While RCR teammate Ryan Newman topped the speed charts with a fast lap of 195.346 miles per hour during Saturday’s final practice session before Sunday’s pole qualifications for the 56th Daytona 500 on Feb. 23, Dillon was second fastest (195.211).
Asked if he hoped the sight of his No. 3 in the rearview mirrors of his opposition would be an intimidating factor, much as it was for Earnhardt Sr., Dillon smiled and laughed.
“No, not at all,’’ he said. “I still have a long way to go in this sport. This is my rookie year. One day, if we’re winning championships, competing for wins, maybe it will happen.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.