Thursday, June 21, 2018
Sports

Austin Dillon still honored to carry No. 3 tradition

In the years between Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 and 2014, no one drove the No. 3 car at NASCAR's top level.

Still, Earnhardt fans showed up to races decked out in his gear.

The No. 3 has been back on the track in Sprint Cup since 2014, when Austin Dillon took it over, and fans of the No. 3 remain in the stands.

But Dillon's No. 3 is stylized the same as Earnhardt's, so how does he know if the fan likes him or if it's some older Earnhardt memorabilia?

"When it says 'Dow' on it," Dillon said referring to Dow Chemicals, one of his sponsors, "that's another feather in my cap. I'm like, dang, that's awesome. Seeing them with a 3 shirt or Austin Dillon shirt means a lot for me."

In the 21/2 years since Richard Childress announced his grandson would be the first person to race the No. 3 car full-time for his Sprint Cup team since Earnhardt's death, Dillon is having some of his best performances.

He's 10th in points going into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, and his three top-five finishes this season are one better than his other two seasons combined.

"It's been a solid year for sure," Dillon said recently. "Things are coming easier. The hard work is still double the amount that we put in the first year. But you feel like you fight and fight for the entire race and sometimes it just happens for you. Things have been going well and that's created from everyone at the shop."

Earnhardt's death in 2001 remains one of the most shocking moments in auto racing history. The seven-time Winston Cup champion was known simply as Dale, or by his "Intimidator" nickname.

Dillon grew up adoring Earnhardt, who won six of his seven championships while racing for Dillon's grandfather. Childress has pictures of Earnhardt holding Dillon as a tyke, and Dillon wore No. 3 when playing youth sports.

After Earnhardt's death, Childress kept the license to the No. 3 car but didn't race it. He said NASCAR gave it to RCR, and eventually he began paying for the license each year so he could officially control the number.

Childress wanted the right driver, and the right time, for the No. 3 to return.

"I think the first thing is being accepted by all the race fans," Childress said. "I'd say 99 percent or better welcomed us bringing it back."

Clearly Dillon understands the history of the number, and that there's a weight that comes along with it.

Though not a perfect corollary, when LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami, he changed his jersey number from 23 to 6 out of respect for Michael Jordan. James is now back in the 23 in Cleveland.

But does an athlete want to create a legacy or continue one?

"I love continuing this legacy," Dillon said firmly. "I want to win in this number. … I think we have the group that can do it and we just need that next step."

Childress admits it will be emotional if Dillon, who won championships in NASCAR trucks and the Xfinity series, can win in the No. 3 car at the Cup level. Could the Lewisville, N.C., native do it in his home state?

"I love the state of North Carolina and there's only three or four of us left (driving in the series) that are from this state," Dillon said. "In front of your family and friends it means a lot. To have your first Cup victory be here, that would be huge."

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Published: 06/20/18