For Richard Childress Racing, it’s not a matter of if the No. 3 Chevrolet ever comes back to the race track in the Sprint Cup Series, but a matter of when.
While the legend of the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet was forged during the Dale Earnhardt dynasty — an era when the seven-time champion earned six of his Cup titles and 67 of 76 career wins — RCR has fielded that number on the vehicles of Austin and Ty Dillon, the grandsons of the organization’s founder, Richard Childress.
It’s very likely that when Austin Dillon graduates full time to the Sprint Cup Series he will campaign in the No 3 Chevy.
And Dale Earnhardt Jr. seems perfectly cool with that.
“I think it will be great,” Earnhardt said. “It was an iconic number for my father and it means a lot to a lot of his fans. This sport doesn’t really retire numbers, and all the numbers have history tied to them for several different reasons. The No. 3 is no different.”
Certainly for Junior — and legions of other Earnhardt fans — some of their fondest memories are of the Intimidator’s glory days in the black No. 3. Unfortunately, the era ended here when Earnhardt lost his life in the 2001 Daytona 500.
But Richard Petty fans have moved on with whoever pilots the No. 43. Enthusiasts who appreciated Fireball Roberts, Tim Flock, Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip or Bill Elliott in the No. 11 don’t fault Denny Hamlin for driving the car now.
And when the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford returned to Victory Lane in the 2011 Daytona 500 for the first time in 35 years with Trevor Bayne behind the wheel, it was one of the greatest celebrations the sport has ever known.
Considering that Earnhardt grew up with close ties to RCR, he’s been able to witness the Dillon boys evolve and mature over the years. At 23, Austin already has won a truck championship and finished third in the Nationwide Series last year.
Earnhardt believes that Austin, who is currently fifth in the NNS point standings, “has speed" and “has really surprised everybody.”
“He has shown he can be aggressive, and he will work real hard at every position,” Earnhardt said. “Just watching him run laps and watching him in races, you see he is just a tough competitor.
“I think it’s exciting to see Richard have something new to kind of keep the fire going in him and keep RCR excited about their future. That rests squarely on those two kids’ shoulders.”
Junior, who in addition to being a top competitor in NASCAR is a historian of the sport, believes each competitor has the right to carry whatever number suits them.
“I think that for Austin … he drove the No. 3 in dirt racing and he drove the No. 3 in his Truck series and Nationwide series. He has earned the right to run that number as long as he wants,” Earnhardt said.
"It could have been anybody, but it’s Austin. It could have been any kid coming up through the ranks that had ran that number, and that’s his number. Maybe he’s not even an Earnhardt fan, maybe that is just his number.
“[If] he wants to run it, I think it’s not really fair to deny somebody that opportunity. I’m OK with it. I know that might not be the way a lot of people feel or some people feel, but I’m sure it’s the minority that feels that way. I think that a lot of people will be telling Austin positive things about it.”