When the decision to bring back the 3 car was announced last month, I wrote what I felt – I didn’t want to see Dale Earnhardt’s car in a Sprint Cup race.
I wanted it, and the memories it evoked, preserved. Almost as if the car was behind thick glass. Fans could look and remember and smile and cheer and cry. But they couldn’t touch. I’m an outsider.
Richard Childress, who owns Richard Childress Racing, is inside. He was inside an old car in the rain with Dale Earnhardt 14 years ago. They were a team, Childress and Earnhardt.
They talked about a retirement plan. When Earnhardt walked away, they’d replace him with a driver who would honor the number by winning races and championships.
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Earnhardt died a year later on the last lap of the Daytona 500. The 3 has been retired, at least at the Cup level, since.
Childress says he wouldn’t put anybody in the car until the right driver came along. Not only did the driver have to have the potential to be a champion, but he also had to come from the inside. He had to be an Earnhardt or a Childress.
The driver will be Sprint Cup rookie Austin Dillon. Dillon, 23, is the grandson of Childress. Dillon drove the 3 in the truck and Nationwide series, and won a championship in each.
Dillon speaks Tuesday at the NASCAR Media Tour. He wears a black shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. They look like working boots; scuffed, with a lot of miles on them.
Childress is late for the 10:30 a.m. group interview, caught in a traffic jam. Childress preaches being on time. He might preach this daily. Dillon is one of the people to whom Childress preaches.
“When he walks in, can we clap for him real loud?” Dillon asks the media.
We do. All rise.
Dillon is courteous.
He’s not as tall as Earnhardt.
He’s a better athlete, a former soccer player and a slick fielding second baseman on the Clemmons team that played in the Little League World Series. He wore No. 3.
Dillon has a close-cropped beard, not a moustache.
Dillon was at the Daytona 500 when Earnhardt won in 1998. But growing up he often watched races at home with his grandmother or mom. When Earnhardt won, they got pizza.
What did you have when he didn’t win?
“We just had soup, I guess,” says Dillon. “But he won a lot.”
Dillon remembers filming a commercial with Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Action Performance came out with diecast cars that would simulate an explosion when they wrecked. Taylor Earnhardt, Dale’s daughter, and Dillon played with the cars. Dillon grabbed the 3 and wouldn’t give it back.
“I remember it was like a big argument,” says Dillon.
Earnhardt finally made Taylor play with Gordon’s car. It was like punishment; if you’re bad you have to play with the 24.
Earnhardt won seven championships, six driving the 3. Fans remember him filling up a rear view mirror and dominating.
Won’t the number create pressure for a rookie – or anybody else?
The number “pushes you a little bit,” says Dillon. “So I think there is an advantage to having something like that. You’re already giving 100 percent. If you’ve got a little more you can give at the end because of that I think that’s pretty cool.”
The 3 will make its Cup debut next month at Daytona International Speedway. Young drivers tell Childress that although they never had the opportunity to race Earnhardt, they’re thrilled to race the 3.
There will be no thick glass to protect it.
More than any driver, car, nearby beach or race queen, the 3 will be scrutinized and so will Dillon.
“It’s very emotional,” he says. “I feel like I’m the guy in the car. The history that was created with that number is Dale’s.”