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Dale Jr. would be OK with Dillon taking 3 to Cup

November 19, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Austin Dillon won the Camping World Truck Series championship on Friday night driving a vehicle that bears the iconic No. 3. Next year, he'll pilot a car on the Nationwide Series adorned with the same numeral. And if he ever takes that same number up to the Sprint Cup tour one day -- well, there's one person who wouldn't have a problem with it.

That would be Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"It would be fine by me for him to do that. I think it's got to get back on the race track one of these days. It can't be gone forever."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

"Austin's ran that number. I just look at it differently," Earnhardt said Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "I don't look at the numbers tied to drivers as much as the history of the number. The number is more of a bank that you just deposit history into, and it doesn't really belong to any individual. Austin's run that number, and you can't really deny him the opportunity to run it. It just wouldn't be fair."

Dale Earnhardt made the number famous, driving it in six of his seven championship campaigns at NASCAR's top level and cultivating a legion of passionate fans in the process. No one has driven a No. 3 car full-time at the Nationwide or Sprint Cup levels since Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Dillon, grandson of Earnhardt's former car owner Richard Childress, began using the number in the Truck Series when he debuted on that tour in 2009, and will take the numeral with him to the Nationwide circuit next year.

Childress, who ran the number himself before becoming a car owner, has not pronounced any plans to take his grandson Cup racing with the No. 3. When Dillon made his Sprint Cup debut earlier this season at Kansas, he drove a No. 98 car. The Truck Series champ is likely to make a handful of Sprint Cup starts next year, given that Childress' race team is contracting from four to three full-time cars.

But given the family connection, fans still wonder about the prospect of Dillon driving a No. 3 in NASCAR's big leagues one day. Earnhardt points out that the number predates his father.

"Dad did great things," Earnhardt said. "He was a great ambassador for the sport, and we're still as a whole reaping the benefits of what he did and what he accomplished. He put us in front of a lot of people. But even before that, that number was Richard's. Richard drove it; somebody else drove it before then. There's a lot of guys in the '50s and '60s that ran that number with success. ... When you put the color and the style with it, it's a little iconic to the sport."

To his credit, Dillon has embraced the history of the number, and shown nothing but respect for its history. Earnhardt Jr. recognizes that.

"Austin's a good kid," Earnhardt said. "He seems to have a great appreciation for what's happening to him and what's going on around him. I would be happy if he wanted to keep [driving the 3]. He kind of had to know when he first started that running that number -- if he got this far into the deal, he would have to cross a few bridges like that. That was a tough decision I guess at first, to start running the number for him, knowing what pressures he might face down the road. But I think it would be fine by me for him to do that. I think it's got to get back on the race track one of these days. It can't be gone forever."