It’s been over 10 years since the No. 3 competed on a race track in the Cup series. Since that fateful day in February of 2001, Richard Childress Racing has chosen not to put a the number on the side of a car in the series at the behest of Richard Childress and out of respect to Dale Earnhardt’s memory. Since the day of the accident, there has been discussion among fans and media types about the appropriate time to bring the number back and, more importantly, who should be behind the wheel when that day arrives. Since the number has belonged to Richard Childress since he started owning a Cup team full time in 1976, it is ultimately his call as to who will be driving if and when the number returns to the Cup tracks in competition.
Many of the fans of Dale Earnhardt have felt that the only person that could bring the number back to the track would be his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. While that is a great sentimental idea, the amount of pressure that would exert on the younger Earnhardt would be more than most any professional athlete should be subjected to. Earnhardt, Jr. has drawn nearly constant criticism as it is competing in the sport that made his father famous and driving in the shadow of one of the greatest to ever compete in the sport without climbing into the seat of a car bearing the number that was so closely associated with his dad. It would be a tremendous story and the initial excitement of it would be tremendous for the sport. However, unless Earnhardt started ripping off wins and championships like his father, it would ultimately be a disservice to his father, himself, Richard Childress and the number.
Since Richard Childress is the “owner” of the number, having fielded it for eight years before Dale Earnhardt ever climbed into the seat of that car, it would make the most sense to have his legacy carry on the number. There is no doubt, no matter who pulls off of pit road for the first time with the No. 3 on the side of their car, they’ll be under an incredible amount of scrutiny. However, having the driver with a direct link to the family who ran the number for 17 years before it was moth-balled in the seat will make it a more palatable reality for the fans. That is why the most logical selection to bring the No. 3 back to the Cup series, when it finally happens, is going to be Austin Dillon.
Dillon is Childress’ grandson and has been racing his way towards the Cup series for several years. He’s been competing in the Truck series for the last two years and will be in the Nationwide series next season, with the No. 3 on the side of the car. It appears as though, after two years of competition in the Nationwide series Dillon will make the final step and move to the Cup series, bringing the No. 3 with him and back into Cup competition for the first time in 13 years by the time it happens.
Dillon finished second in the K&N East series in 2008 before running a sporadic schedule in a myriad of series in 2009. He went full-time in the Truck series in 2010, ended the season fifth in points and captured the Rookie of the Year title. After 17 races this season he is fourth in the title hunt, 17 points out of the lead and the last driver with a realistic chance of claiming the big trophy at the end of the season.
Dillon has been under the glare of the media spotlight for some time, especially the last two years, for not only running in a No. 3 Truck or K&N car, but also because of his heritage. There is obviously some pressure having a well known grandparent and when you decide to pursue the same sport that made them famous, that magnifying glass is applied even more intently. So far, Dillon has relished his position in the Childress shadow and seems well equipped to withstand the intense attention that will come with driving one of the two most famous numbers in the sport.
The No. 3 has not been on the track for a Cup series event since 2001, but there’s a very real possibility it will return to the Cup lineup in 2014 with a direct descendant of Richard Childress behind the wheel. The return of the iconic number will be a time of mixed emotions for fans, some of whom don’t ever want to see it on the track again while others can’t wait to finally cheer for their favorite number again. Whatever the opinions, the number looks to be coming back sooner rather than later, and the accompanying onslaught of publicity will be deafening.
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