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Menzer: What's in a number? Lots, when your grandson is behind wheel

November 05, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Richard Childress has been protective of Austin Dillon and the No. 3, but Childress knows the iconic number is in good hands. (Autostock)

FORT WORTH, Tex. -- What's in a number? Lots, when your grandson is behind the wheel

For a former race car driver and longtime car owner known to take chances, Richard Childress has been awfully careful in helping guide and nurture the budding careers of his grandchildren.

For that matter, he's also been extremely judicious about when and how he permits use of the iconic No. 3 that his former driver, the late and legendary Dale Earnhardt, made so famous.

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Austin Dillon will run a full-time 2012 Nationwide Series schedule in Richard Childress Racing's No. 3.

But there comes a time when even a protective grandfather knows that what is best is to let go -- at least to some degree, a little at a time. Childress has been doing so with grandchildren Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon in tiny increments for years, and on Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, Childress let go a little bit more.

In the theater on one side of the TMS media center, Childress sat on stage with grandson Austin and unveiled not only plans for young Austin to run a full Nationwide Series schedule next season -- but also the car in which young Austin intends to do it. As with the machine Austin drove in Friday night's Truck Series race, the car was black with the "stylized" No. 3 adorning its doors and roof.

And as is so often the case these days, and every day since Austin was born 21 years ago and Ty 18 years ago, Grandpa Childress was beaming with pride. It was one of those NASCAR moments that seemed just right.

Richard recalled receiving a phone call from Ty when the younger of his two racing grandsons was only 13.

"Austin and I are ready to go racing now," Ty told his grandfather matter-of-factly.

Joking about it Friday, Childress chuckled and added, "That was the most expensive phone call I ever got."

Mapping it out

Childress knew the phone call would be coming some day, and both he and Mike Dillon, father of the two boys and vice president of competition at Richard Childress Racing, were ready for it. They wanted the kids to start out slow, prove themselves at each level before moving upward and onward. They thought it was a solid blueprint for success -- or at least one that wouldn't be too aggressive and somehow promote ultimate failure.

The two boys, ever polite, aren't the type to ask for a whole lot. But there was something right away that Austin wanted.

"Mike and I sat down and sort of had a plan of how we wanted to see their careers to move, from Bandoleros on up," Childress said. "Ty had the [No.] 2 car to start out with and Austin said, 'Pop, I want to use your number.' And I said, 'Well, Austin, that was my number. But Dale was the one who made it famous.' "

Childress said he tried to reason with the boy. "But how do you say no to your grandkid on something like that?"

Eventually, he didn't. Before this goes any further, Childress made it a point Friday to say that none of this -- not even the No. 3 being driven full time in the Nationwide Series next year -- means that Austin Dillon eventually will drive the No. 3 someday in the Sprint Cup Series. In fact, at the very beginning of Friday's news conference, Childress took a microphone and said: "I'll answer the next big question that I know everyone's going to ask -- and that's, 'Is the 3 going to Cup with Austin someday?' Right now we have no intentions of taking the stylized 3 to the Cup Series. So I thought I would get that out."

But he is excited to see it run in the Nationwide Series, after receiving the dual blessing to do so from both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt. With Austin vying for the Camping World Truck Series championship, he's earned the right to run it at that level. First, of course, he had to simply earn the right to run at that level, period. And he thinks he has.

"The Nationwide Series is something I've been looking forward to for a long time," Austin Dillon said. "It's a tough series, but I feel like what we've done in the Truck Series the last few years is really going to prepare us for it. Hopefully we can seal this [Truck] championship off and move up with a good step forward into the Nationwide Series.

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"I feel like I was in a fortunate situation, taking our time and winning races in whatever series we were in before moving up. We just took our time -- and I feel like the time is now to move up to the Nationwide Series."

Making Pop proud

Leave it to the youngest boy to put it all in perspective. Yes, Richard Childress Racing is big business, where you aren't given rides in fancy cars but have to earn them. But it's also a family business.

"As serious as this sport is, as a family we have fun at it," said Ty Dillon, who has tentative plans of his own to move up to the Truck Series next year. "We enjoy every minute being together and doing something that we love to do. It's the enjoyment that we get out of running good and working as a family and as a team, together, to really achieve a common goal -- winning races for RCR.

"It's a family company and we all give every bit of heart and soul toward it. And it's not just me and my brother Austin -- it's my dad, who's vice president of competition at RCR and my mom and grand-mom who are fighting just as hard for things, too. Everybody in our family wants it as bad as anybody at RCR because it is our family name and it's a sport that we love and that we've all grown up around."

Ty didn't mean to leave out Grandpa, because it's always implied that Richard Childress is the fountain from which all else flows at RCR. And Childress is ready to let Austin Dillon flow into the Nationwide Series with the No. 3 on his Chevrolet.

"I think there is a lot of stock you can put in a number. It something we gave a lot of serious thought before we even put it on the very first RCR car," Childress said. "I don't think it will make you win or lose. I know the reason I put the 3 on my car the first time was because it was cheaper to do one number rather than the 96.

"The 3 has so much winning tradition, from Junior Johnson to all the other drivers who have driven cars with it on there. But it was Dale who made it famous. If you come visit our museum [at the RCR complex in Welcome, N.C.], we have lots of pictures of Dale holding Austin and Ty being there. But in one of them, Austin is standing on the Daytona 500 trophy in 1998, holding his finger up and standing right next to Dale after he won it. I know he'd be proud to see him run it."

Childress went on to say, repeatedly, that what he's most proud of is the fact that his two racing grandsons are "good young men who respect the sport and our fans." Austin chuckled when he was asked what it's like to bring such obvious, unabashed joy to his grandfather through his racing.

"It's a great thing to be able to represent my grandfather and a great team owner in NASCAR," Austin said. "I'm not sure sometimes if I'm giving him joy or giving him a heart attack. I try to make it as easy as I can on him.

"But it's just really cool. I have to thank all of my family for putting me where I am today."

The young man hit it right on the head. It's just a really cool story.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.