NASCAR is a very different sport than it was in the fall of 2000. That was the last time the number 3 visited Victory Lane. No one knew it at the time, but that Victory Lane celebration would be the last for the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. He would lose his life on the final lap of the Daytona 500 only a few months later.
His car owner Richard Childress had some tough decisions to make in the immediate aftermath of that terrible day. That the team would race again was never in question; he and Earnhardt had already agreed that should something happen to one of them, the team would race on. And that they did.
Young Kevin Harvick was given the daunting task of filling the seat left by Earnhardt. Childress however put the number 29 on the side of the car instead of the stylized number 3 Earnhardt made famous.
There were remembrances that season as fans held three fingers aloft on the third lap of every race, and Harvick did the same when he scored an emotional win at Atlanta just a few weeks later hold three fingers out the window on his victory lap. That stylized number 3 however would be seen everywhere; on memorials, fan stickers and other places. It would not however be seen on a Cup car however until 2014.
The Richard Childress Racing team made the announcement at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October of 2013 that the stylized number 3 would return to Cup competition full time the following season. The driver would be Austin Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress.
“You know, I never second guessed myself bringing it back,” Childress said. “I did have a lot of thoughts about bringing it back and the pressure it would be on whoever got in the car.
“I wanted to bring it back, but it had to be something special to bring it back. To have my grandson, to put him in it, was unbelievable.”
Through the years, that number 3 has come to represent many things to many fans. To those who used to cheer for Earnhardt, it represents the old school days of NASCAR, days much different than today. An homage to the past. In the years since that number 3 was campaigned fulltime in the Cup series however a new generation of fans have come along. Those who never saw Earnhardt Sr. race; to them that number is nothing more than an important part of NASCAR history.
The driver, Austin Dillon, has shown the world that he’s up to the challenge of Cup racing. Those new fans of Dillon, and perhaps the old ones of Earnhardt, have witnessed the rise of a talented driver, cocky, confident and not afraid to mix it up with the veterans. Dillon rose to the challenge, and many agree he has done so very well.
“I was just not going to put anyone in it. (It) Had to have been one of the Childress family or one of the Earnhardts,” Childress said. “It just worked out that Austin ran the 3 when he ran his first bandolero race (at Charlotte Motor Speedway). He’s always run the 3 in everything he’s ran.”
Sunday night and into the early morning on Monday, it all came to fruition as Dillon saved just enough fuel to hold off veteran drivers Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. to win his first Cup race. The win came at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600.
Earlier in the week the RCR team had replaced Dillon’s crew chief. It was a somewhat controversial move that drew some criticism from fans. As has become almost normal for Dillon he brushed off that disparagement.
“Haters gonna hate,” he said smiling. “They keep sipping that ‘Hater-Ade.’”
Early Monday morning though none of the earlier controversy was evident as Dillon climbed from the car in Victory Lane. The roar from the crowd, many of whom stayed for that moment when Dillon climbed from the car, could be physically felt around the 1.5-mile speedway. Dillon said he felt it as well and that it took all that controversy away.
“It does, man,” he said. “That’s what it’s about. The best guys have been hated in this sport truthfully. If people don’t like you, you’re still doing something right, I feel like, because there’s just as many that do.”
Dillon said he never gave up hope of putting the 3 in Victory Lane in the Cup series. He knew there would be pressure with that number on the door, but he said he had been prepared for a long time to tough it out.
“From the very beginning, my grandfather has challenged us with everything,” Dillon said. “He’s a true hero also, starting with nothing, and making RCR into what it is today.
He pushed me and my brother to go on hunting trips that I don’t think most people would go on. So the toughness has always been there. It came from him and my dad and my mom, all my family members.”
“Now to be able to deliver a number that is legendary and has stats that are untouchable, just to add to those numbers is something that him and his best friend were able to create,” he added. “It’s very special.
“And to all those fans that have supported it, too, ’cause there’s always haters out there. There’s a lot of support, too. There’s a great support system. To deliver this to them, the people that are proud to see that No. 3 out on the track, it feels amazing.”
Grandfather, team owner and best friend of Dale Earnhardt Sr. Childress knows he did the right thing by bringing back the 3.
That decision was validated Sunday.
“Can you believe this, the Coke 600, Austin Dillon, the 3?” Childress said. “When I looked up and saw the 3 on top of the board, I was standing there doing an interview, that’s when I got emotional.”
“It’s so special to see that 3 in winner’s circle again,” he added.
It was not only special to Childress, Dillon and the team, but to the rest of NASCAR and its fans. The roar of the crowd when Dillon climbed from the winning No. 3 echoed around the track Monday morning. And showed that now is the right time to see that famous number 3 back in Victory Lane once again.