Austin Dillon will bring Dale Earnhardt's old No. 3 back to NASCAR's premier series.
CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt made the No. 3 car famous, using it to win six championships and running the number until his death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
The No. 3 has not appeared in a Sprint Cup race since then.
But next season, 13 years after Earnhardt's death, the 3 car will return full-time to the Sprint Cup Series with rookie driver Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing announced Wednesday.
Dillon is a grandson of Richard Childress, who owned Earnhardt's cars during most of his career and once drove the number himself. The cars, sponsored by Dow Chemical and Cheerios, will feature the same stylized 3 that Earnhardt once had on the side of his door.
"I know in my heart today as I sit here, Dale Earnhardt is smiling down," Childress said. "He would want to see this 3. He didn't want to see it ever go away. I know today that he's accepting this highly. I knew him that well."
Though some loyal Earnhardt fans may be upset by Wednesday's announcement (an informal poll on Twitter had a 50-50 split in opinion), the news was a long time coming. Dillon had already raced the No. 3 to win championships in the Nationwide Series (2013) and Camping World Truck Series (2011), saying he preferred to use the number because it honored his grandfather.
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Childress said he spoke to Earnhardt about the future of the No. 3 car before the driver's death and was confident the seven-time champion wanted it to continue racing. But Childress never put another driver in the car until now, preferring to save it for a member of either the Earnhardt or Childress family (the car changed from No. 3 to No. 29 when Kevin Harvick replaced Earnhardt in 2001).
The fan reaction, Childress said, has been mostly positive.
"For every five (negative) calls, we get 95 positive," Childress said. "What we're hoping to do is win those over with the class we're going to bring the 3 back with."
But despite the desire to use the No. 3, it might never have come to fruition had the plan not received the blessing of Earnhardt's friends and family, including Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dillon indicated he would not have used the number had Earnhardt objected, saying "it would have probably changed our minds of everything. I would have went a different direction."
But that didn't happen. Earnhardt Jr., who plays with Dillon in a recreational basketball league held on his property, said he was enthusiastic about the No. 3's return.
"I'm in favor of it," he said last week. "I'm real comfortable with it. I look forward to seeing it out on the racetrack. It'll definitely stir up some emotions that I'm probably not aware of right now, but I'm expecting it to have a positive influence on the sport and the fans and Austin as well.
"He's got a good head on his shoulders. I would be worried if I didn't think he'd respect it or not understand the legacy, but he does. I know he does. He appreciates it."
All along, Earnhardt Jr. added, he knew there would be a kid who came up through the ranks using the No. 3. Maybe it was the number used by a random kid in Pop Warner football or Little League baseball and transferred to racing, he said; or maybe it was a number used by family members with previous racing success.
Either way, Earnhardt Jr. said, a driver "shouldn't be denied" the opportunity to use the No. 3.
"In this case, I feel the same way for Austin," he said. "He's carried that number as his own and made his own impact and legacy with the number. He's done things, won championships and races, and he's used it all his life ever since he was in sports."
As a boy, Dillon associated the No. 3 with his grandfather being happy -- and pizza. After every race Earnhardt won, Childress would bring home pizza for his grandchildren, so Dillon was always excited to see the No. 3 car in victory lane.
Now, he'll have a chance to continue the car's winning tradition in the Sprint Cup Series.
"It's what you dream of when you start racing, is to make it to the Cup Series one day," Dillon said. "Just proud to be here."