DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It is the number to watch.
And it won't be hard to find.
It will be at the front when the field races to the green flag at the Daytona 500 on Sunday, carrying a vision of the driver who remains perhaps the sport's most popular of all time -- Dale Earnhardt.
It will be a poignant moment.
The 3 car has not run in a Sprint Cup race at Daytona since January 2001, when it slammed into the wall with Earnhardt at the wheel and resulted in his death.
But Sunday, the return of the 3 will represent a new beginning, perhaps a new era, for the owner of the number, Richard Childress, and his grandson, the driver, rookie Austin Dillon.
It will be hard to avoid the significance.
"You know, the 3 is special to all of us -- the family, the Earnhardt family, to every one of us," Childress said. "But I think it's special because Austin, our family, is in the car. You know, the emotions will fly if the 3 rolls in there on Sunday. I won't hold it back. I promise."
No one expects him to.
The drivers at Daytona understand what the 3 means to fans of the sport. Earnhardt won six championships in the 3 car for Richard Childress Racing, steadily earning a reputation as "The Intimidator" and then "The Man in Black" after the car took on a black paint scheme in 1988 with Goodwrench and Budweiser on the hood.
Dillon's car is sponsored by Dow and its white diamond. But the 3 -- driven by Childress himself for three years in the 1970s -- is as big as ever on the roof and doors.
"I'm old enough to remember when Richard Childress drove the car, and it has the same number, the same look, everything about it," said ESPN analyst Andy Petree, the crew chief for Earnhardt's championships in 1993 and '94. "It wasn't the same color, but that was his No. 3. I think he's been very respectful over the last 13, 14 years not using the number, basically having it in retirement for a while. And he was not going to bring it back just to bring it back."
If the 3 is back because Childress thinks it can win, he might be right. Dillon, 23, proved deserving by winning championships in the truck and Nationwide series (running the number in both) before his grandfather gave him the full-time ride in it for Sprint Cup this year.
And last weekend, with the stock-car world watching, Dillon put the 3 and its Earnhardt-Childress Racing engine atop the speed chart.
"You've got to have those blinders on because that's what it's going to take," Dillon said. "You want to perform with the No. 3, and everybody wants to see it perform."
But Dillon has a long way to go to make the number truly his. He could win the biggest race of the year on Sunday, and the 3 will still remain associated with Earnhardt.
"I think you always see the No. 3 car as Dale Earnhardt," driver Joey Logano said. "I don't think Austin is trying to take that away from him. I think it's cool to see it out there, but I think no matter what, it's always going to be Dale's number."
To the people who knew Earnhardt best, it's a good feeling to see the 3 back.
"It feels perfectly right, perfectly fine to me to have the No. 3 on the race track," said Michael Waltrip, who won that 2001 Daytona 500. "Austin Dillon is the perfect young man to drive the 3 car. He's very respectful of the sport, he's very knowledgeable of the history, he knows the significance of the number and the situation. I'm happy it's back because I love Dale, and any time I see something that reminds me of him, it makes me smile.
"Just knowing that number is right where it needs to be, in the right hands, with the right people and at the right time, is special to me."
Three to watch
Denny Hamlin: Won the exhibition race and a Duel. Healthy after missing time last year with a broken back. Looks locked in.
Matt Kenseth: A two-time 500 winner. Expert restrictor-plate racer. But Toyota has never won a Daytona 500.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Has been second in three of the past four Daytona 500s. Has a great feel for drafting, super important at Daytona.
"You've got to have those blinders on because that's what it's going to take. You want to perform with the No. 3, and everybody wants to see it perform."
(c)2014 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Visit the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at www.star-telegram.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services