Austin Dillon returns Earnhardt's No. 3 to Sprint Cup ranks

DAYTONA BEACH — The last time the No. 3 was on the side of a car in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, it belonged to Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt was riding in it when he died in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

Richard Childress, Earnhardt's car owner, will return the No. 3 car to the track for the first time in Sprint Cup on Sunday, in qualifying for the Daytona 500 — with Childress' grandson Austin Dillon at the wheel.

And though Dillon has driven the No. 3 his entire NASCAR career in other series, reactions are mixed about the decision.

"I kind of have mixed feelings about it," truck series driver Ryan Blaney said. "The way I see it, it's different in football or basketball when they retire a jersey. No one's ever going to be a 23 again on the Chicago Bulls. … I think it's really cool he's brought it back. You can't dwell on something forever. You have to revitalize the sport. Hopefully this does it."

Dillon, 23, said he understands that for many fans the number belongs to Earnhardt, and he has the utmost respect for that sentiment. He said the decision was made in conjunction with his grandfather after talking with many people, including the Earnhardt family.

"I think Dale was so important in driving that number," Dillon said. "He was the guy that made that number what it is today. But Dale Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt not only because of the number but because he was a hero and created so many things for this sport. Hopefully I can continue the legacy that it has and keep on moving on with it."

Those closest to Earnhardt believe the time has arrived.

"I'm glad it's back," driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "It was going to come back and you always wondered how, and when, and what the situation would be like. It's a good situation that I can be comfortable with. I'm happy for that because it could have just as easily been a difficult situation that I wouldn't have been comfortable with."

Three-time Cup winner Tony Stewart said fans should realize the number actually doesn't belong to the drivers.

"Here is the thing: We don't own these numbers," Stewart said. "These are numbers that we've picked that are available from NASCAR. The good thing is that the guy that owned that car, that made it so historic, is still the guy that owns that number. … I think it's going to be good for a lot of people to see it back. The ones that aren't excited about seeing it back are not excited for the wrong reasons."

The car won't exactly look like Earnhardt's; Dillon said his grandfather insisted the car would not be black, at least not as the primary color.

For now, Dillon is thrilled with the opportunity to drive the legendary Earnhardt's former number — and hopes one day racing fans everywhere will feel the same.

"Everybody's got their own opinion," he said. "I feel like hopefully we can win them over as time goes on. That's all you can do."

Tonight

Sprint Unlimited nonpoints race, 8, Daytona International Speedway TV: Fox Sports 1

Austin Dillon returns Earnhardt's No. 3 to Sprint Cup ranks 02/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 9:43pm]

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