Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his blessing for Richard Childress to run the No. 3 for his grandson Austin Dillon next season and beyond.
On Friday night, Dillon did the number proud by becoming the youngest Camping World Truck Series champion at the age of 21.
Earnhardt is not territorial with the iconic number that his father made famous by earning six of his seven Cup titles and 67 of his 76 wins while driving.
NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver says he just looks at the situation "differently."
“I don’t look at the numbers tied to drivers as much as just the history of the number,” Earnhardt said.
“The number is more of a bank, you know, that you just deposit history into. It doesn’t really belong to any individual. Austin’s ran that number, and you can’t really deny him the opportunity to continue to run it. It just wouldn’t be fair.
“Dad did great things. He was a great ambassador for the sport, and we’re still, as a whole, reaping the benefits of all he accomplished and what he did that put us in front of a lot of people. But even before that, the number was Richard’s. Richard drove it. And someone else drove it before then.”
The stylized No. 3 came under Childress’ domain in 1976. The first win in the RCR No. 3 came while Ricky Rudd was behind the wheel at Riverside in 1983 after Earnhardt Sr. left to drive for Bud Moore.
Before Childress had the number, Dick Rathman drove the No. 3 to its first win at Oakland (Calif.) Stadium. Paul Goldsmith, Cotton Owens, Speedy Thompson, Fireball Roberts, Marvin Panch, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck and Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough and even Al Unser drove the No. 3.
“There’s a lot of guys in the ’50s and ’60s that ran that number with success,” Earnhardt said. “It’s iconic when you put the colors and the style with it; it’s a little bit iconic to the sport.”
Given Earnhardt Jr.’s close relationship with Childress and his awareness of both Austin and Ty Dillon — like Junior, racers who have grown up under the spotlight at race tracks — no one has a better understanding of the respect that the grandchildren have for the number.
Earlier this month, Earnhardt said he was excited to see the Dillon revive the number. He referred to Dillon as “a sharp kid with a lot of potential” and added, “The respect he shows the sport and his competitors is a reflection of the family values that have molded him into the person he is today."
Earnhardt’s father was the last driver to race the No. 3 in Cup competition when he lost his life at Daytona in 2001. Junior was the last driver to run the No. 3 Chevrolet in the Nationwide Series race when he was victorious at Daytona in July 2010.
And if Earnhardt Jr. can accept the return of the No. 3 into competition, hopefully the fan base can be just as welcoming.
“Austin is a good kid — he seems to have a great appreciation for what’s happening to him and what’s going on around him,” Earnhardt said. “And I would be happy if he wanted to keep doing that.
“He kind of had to know when he first started to run that number [that] if he got this far into the deal, he would have to cross a few bridges like that, and that was a tough decision, I guess, at first, to start running the number for him, knowing what kind of pressures he might face down the road.
"But I think it would be fine by me for him to do that. I think that it’s got to get back on the race track one of these days. It just can’t be gone forever, you know?”