In modern-day NASCAR, there’s no Don Corleone equivalent, no ring to kiss to garner favor.
But having the blessing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. — NASCAR’S Most Popular Driver — might be the next best thing, particularly when it comes to reactivating the No. 3 on a Sprint Cup car.
Although more than 70 drivers have raced at NASCAR’s highest level with the No. 3, Dale Earnhardt made the number famous while earning six of his seven titles and 67 career wins behind the wheel of the 3.
Before Richard Childress formally announced Wednesday that his grandson, Austin Dillon, will drive the No. 3 Chevy in 2014, Earnhardt Jr. and his sister, Kelley, expressed their approval.
"I always knew that it would come back,” Earnhardt Jr. said. "I always felt like one day there would be some kid — and maybe it was Austin, I’m sure it was Austin — that started off playing T-ball or baseball or football and Pop Warner, that wore the number 3.
"Whether he wore it because of their dad or their grandfather, Richard Childress, or some anonymous kid that just liked the number and he used it in everything he did. Eventually, this kid becomes a racecar driver and he wants to be the No. 3. I think that’s fair. He shouldn’t be denied that.
“In this case, I feel the same way for Austin. I feel like Austin has carried that number as his own. He’s made his own impact and legacy with the number. He’s won championships and races and used it all his life — ever since he was in sports. It means a lot to him.
"Plus, people forget about the history of the number with Richard. It was Richard’s number to begin with — and that’s his grandfather. So there’s a unique storyline with Austin and the number that has nothing to do with Dale Earnhardt.”
Childress first ran the number in the 1976 Daytona 500; prior to that, Bud Moore held it. Earnhardt’s debut in the No. 3 wasn’t until Aug. 16, 1981 at Michigan International Speedway, where he finished ninth in the RCR Pontiac. However, the No. 3 has been shelved since Dale Sr.’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
After Dillon won the Nationwide Series championship in the No. 3 Bass Pro Shops Chevy, Kelley Earnhardt Miller tweeted:
Congrats @austindillon3🙂 you have carried the "3" to its championship ways:) I expected no less!
In some ways, having Dillon carry the No. 3 for his 2014 rookie Cup season is a relief to Earnhardt Jr., who is under enough pressure simply to live up to the name.
“I won’t be asked when I’m going to run it anymore, and that will be good,” he said with a laugh. “I really had no interest in doing that. I’m excited for Austin. He’s really young. Obviously, he has a long way to go, but he’s a good kid with a good head on his shoulders.
"Both of those kids (including brother Ty) are good kids. I spend a lot of time around them. They play on our basketball league, so I spend time with them away from the racetrack.”
Dillon has mutual respect for Junior and admires the way Earnhardt attracts fans not only for what he’s accomplished on the track but “because of the person he is, too.”
During the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Dillon admits, he “was jumping up and down pulling for him” just like most of the other fans in the stands.
"I’m a huge Junior fan myself," Dillon said. "I thought he was going to win that race. They were racing so hard. I wish he would have got clear, because I think he would have got to the lead. He fights hard, and he wants it just as bad for his fans as they want it for him.”
Dillon understands there will “be some lovers, some haters” when the No. 3 returns to the track. He’s aware of the response the number received in the truck and Nationwide tours when it took the lead — especially at Daytona and Talladega.
Though seeing the number back on the Cup circuit may be initially awkward for a few, the move could be cathartic for others.
"I’m really comfortable with it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. "I look forward to seeing it on the racetrack. It will definitely stir up some emotions that I’m probably not aware of right now, but more than likely I’m expecting it to have a positive influence on the sport, the fans and Austin as well.
"I think that he’ll do a good job. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. I would be worried if I didn’t think he would respect it or if he did not understand the history of the legacy, but he does. I know he does. And he appreciates it.”