DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie Austin Dillon was destined to drive the black No. 3 Chevrolet.
Long before Dillon drove the No. 3 Silverado to the 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship and the No. 3 Camaro to the 2013 Nationwide Series title, he was No. 3 in another sport.
Dillon wore No. 3 as a second baseman for the Clemmons, N.C., baseball team that competed in the 2002 Little League World Series.
That was a tribute to Dale Earnhardt a year after Earnhardt, who won a record-tying seven Sprint Cup championships, died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 while driving for Dillon's grandfather at Richard Childress Racing.
So when Dillon moved up to the Sprint Cup series this year, Childress decided to end No. 3's hiatus in the Sprint Cup series and return it to the track.
And Dillon, 23, wasted little time honoring the memory of Earnhardt and living up to the standard of the No. 3 by winning the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500.
"The legend of Dale has lived on for a long time and is going to live on forever," said Austin, who as a 7-year-old participated in the victory lane celebration of Earnhardt's only Daytona 500 victory in 1998.
"Dale Earnhardt is not just famous because of the number. He is Dale Earnhardt. He was a hero in everybody's mind, including myself."
Earnhardt and Childress began discussing the future of the No. 3 in 2000 when Earnhardt began planning his retirement.
"When Dale and I were talking about his retirement . . . he wanted to help me with the 3 and the team to go out and put a driver in it that could win championships and win races," said Childress, who ran the No. 3 as a driver himself from 1976 to 1981.
"It was not in the plans at all to put anybody in the car until the right person was there. Yeah, if Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. had wanted to do it or Kelley Earnhardt or Kerry or now Jeffrey, whoever . . . it would be an Earnhardt or one of my family who would get in that 3 car.
"But that decision was made 14 years ago, as me and him sat in an old car there in the rain one day, talking about his retirement."
The decision to hand the keys to the No. 3 to Dillon had the blessing of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who at the time of his father's death was racing the No. 8 Chevrolet owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc.
"I'm glad that it's back," said Earnhardt, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. "It was going to come back. You always wonder how and when and what the situation will be like. It's a good situation that I can be comfortable with. . . . Grandson and grandfather being able to come together and doing something like that with a number that's been in their family for so many years.
"That number means a lot to Austin because of his grandfather's history to the number. It's a number that Austin used forever. I'm sure when Austin was playing T-ball with a 3 on his back, he wasn't thinking about 'Man, I wonder how hard it's going to be when I go to Cup, and I want to use this number.' He was just having fun.
"When he played JV or varsity, he wanted to bring his number. That wasn't Dale's number. That was his T-ball number. That was his JV number, his senior number. It means something different to him in a sense and I think you've got to appreciate that."
Dillon realizes some old-line Earnhardt fans may be resistant to seeing someone else driving the No. 3.
"Hopefully they're open enough to take a look at everything we're doing," Dillon said. "As far as performance and moving forward, hopefully we can win them over."
"Running the 3 in the last four years (in the trucks and Nationwide series), it kind of prepared us for any kind of question. . . . The biggest thing is being respectful to all the family that is involved and taking this opportunity and hoping that fans are embracing it the right way."
The other drivers understand the sentimentality of car numbers, but sometimes, it's just business. Tony Stewart may be associated with the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing car, but after he formed his own Stewart-Haas organization, he adopted the No. 14 once used by his hero, A.J. Foyt.
"We don't own these numbers," Stewart said. "These are numbers that we've picked that are available from NASCAR. The good thing is (Childress), the guy that owned that car, that made it so historic, is still the guy that owns that number. When we're all long gone, there's going to be somebody else that's going to drive a 14 car, there's already somebody that's been in a 20 car than me.
"But I think it's going to be good for a lot of people to see (the No. 3) back. The ones who aren't excited about seeing it back are not excited for the wrong reasons. I realize it's more than just a number. It was a lifestyle, an iconic number. But that same guy (Earnhardt) who had that iconic number started in a No. 2 car.
"It's just part of change and it's part of moving on. At the same time, I think it's a good opportunity to honor the guy that did make that number so famous. "
To truly make the No. 3 his, Dillon is going to have to win a lot of races and championships.
"You always see the No. 3 as Dale Earnhardt," said Joey Logano. "That's the iconic number that has taken him around and won seven championships and a boatload of races and became the Intimidator . . . the black No. 3. That's the way it will always be.
"I don't think Austin is trying to take that away from him. It's cool to bring the number back . . . and see it out there, but I think no matter what, it's always going to be Dale's number."
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