CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt last drove his famed No. 3 to Victory Lane almost 10 years ago, at Talladega, in the final win of his illustrious career.
He was killed less than a year later in an accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500, and there’s been a long debate since over how his storied number should be used. The answer for Richard Childress, who holds the rights to the number, was sparingly.
He’s allowed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to use it three times, most recently two weeks ago at Daytona, where he drove it to a victory in the Nationwide Series race. And he’s assigned it to his grandson, Austin Dillon, a rookie in the Truck Series.
What did Dillon do? Drove the black No. 3 to Victory Lane on Sunday at Iowa for his first career victory at NASCAR’s national level. It marked consecutive weeks that a driver took the No. 3 to Victory Lane, and just the third win with that number since Earnhardt’s death.
“It’s so awesome to see that number running well again,” Dillon said Monday. “To see the 3 when you’re leaving the track, it was on top of the board, that was cool for me and my grandfather.”
It’s perhaps the most iconic number in NASCAR, and elicits more emotion than Richard Petty’s No. 43 or the Wood Brothers’ No. 21. Since NASCAR doesn’t retire numbers, the 43 and 21 have been used long beyond their heyday.
But Childress held onto the 3 and has been deliberate in holding it off the track.
Racing with The Intimidator’s stamp on the side of the car is pressure-packed for the driver. And watching it on the track can provide mixed emotions for fans, who can feel both somber and elated by the sight of the 3.
It’s why Earnhardt Jr. is adamant he won’t use the number again. He’s 2 for 3 borrowing his father’s number, with his other victory coming in a Nationwide race at Daytona in 2002.
“I will never do it. I’ll never rethink it. I’ll never consider it. I think that it’s important for everybody to know that that’s as concrete as it gets,” he said. “It’s hard for me. It’s a balancing act between (the media) and the public and myself and my own feelings. It’s such a tough deal. It’s real emotional for me preparing for it and putting it together. It’s just so damn hard to know how everybody feels about it.
“I don’t ever want to do it again. And I’ll never change my mind, ever.”
Dillon doesn’t have the same emotional pull.
The 20-year-old sophomore at High Point University was in middle school when Earnhardt was killed, and his history with the number is based more on legend than what he remembers. But he understands the importance of the No. 3, particularly to race fans.
“It’s a powerful number,” Dillon said. “It makes the people in the stands stand up and cheer.”
And unlike Earnhardt Jr., Dillon enjoys using the number.
“I love driving it. It’s a lot of fun,” he said.
Dillon’s use of the number doesn’t resonate with fans the same way it does as when Earnhardt Jr. is in a No. 3 car. But he’s NASCAR’s most popular driver and the son of the seven-time champion.
Dillon is a young driver who hasn’t had much time to build up a following. And in his grandfather’s equipment at Richard Childress Racing, he’s on a fast-track to stardom that’s not afforded to other young drivers.
He knows his family ties give him an advantage, but he’s not taking it for granted.
“I really take it to heart each time I strap in that car or the truck or whatever I drive,” he said. “I have a good opportunity. I’ve tried to take as much advantage of it as I can. (In Iowa) I did and we won, proved that we can do it with all the competition in the Truck Series.”
Now comes question about his future. Dillon said he’s down for another year in the Truck Series next season, and there’s talk of some Nationwide Series starts. Childress might even let him take the No. 3 up to the next level.
Beyond that is anyone’s guess. Childress has said he doesn’t expect to see the No. 3 back on track in the Cup Series, but he probably didn’t think he’d see his grandson in Victory Lane in a major NASCAR race.
Now that Dillon is a winner, there’s no telling how far he’ll go.
And maybe, just maybe, he’ll take that black No. 3 with him.