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For Dillon, No. 3 has long been the family car

December 11, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Dillon

Austin Dillon's grandfather Richard Childress drove the No. 3 during his racing career

RELATED: Full coverage of RCR '3' announcement

CONCORD, N.C. -- These days, Richard Childress jokes it was the most expensive telephone call he ever received. He had always told his young grandsons, Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon, to let him know if they felt the urge to race. When the inevitable request finally came, Childress asked the tykes what numbers they wanted. Ty Dillon asked for the No. 2, which his father Mike Dillon had often employed during his racing days.

Austin asked for the No. 3.

"Austin," Childress replied, "you know that's a famous number with Dale Earnhardt."

"But it's your number," the youngster replied.

Recalling that conversation makes Childress beam like the proud grandfather he is.

"It made me proud," he said Wednesday. And at its essence, that connection from grandfather to grandson was at the root of the announcement made at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when Richard Childress Racing unveiled a No. 3 car that Dillon will return to competition at NASCAR's highest level for the first time since Earnhardt's fatal accident at Daytona in 2001.

It's impossible to remove Earnhardt from the equation, given that he elevated the No. 3 to iconic status, winning six of his seven championships and 67 of his 76 races in a vehicle that would become the most famous in NASCAR. Ever since that terrible day at Daytona in 2001, Childress has paid NASCAR for the rights to the No. 3 just as he has his other numbers, but in this case to set it aside. He has long said it would only return for family -- either his, or Earnhardt's.

Which is exactly what happened as Dillon climbed the ladder, winning championships at the Camping World Truck and Nationwide levels, marching inevitably toward the Sprint Cup Series, and carrying the No. 3 with him all the way. Childress laid the groundwork, receiving the blessing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller, old Earnhardt crewmen like Danny "Chocolate" Myers, and old Earnhardt confidantes like Don Hawk and J.R. Rhodes.

Childress was diligent, he was patient, and in the end he was true to his word.

"It would have to be an Earnhardt or one (member of) the Childress family that we would put in behind that," he said. "We're not in the Trucks next year. Unless I can get Jeffrey Earnhardt some sponsorship, we won't be running the 3 in the Trucks. It will just be family. … I feel good about it. I had some of my friends in the press put the word out in January that we might do it, and the first time it was around 85 percent (positive) and the next time it was around 90. That was a sign (to do it) if Austin wanted it. It was his choice."

And to Austin, there was no other number.

"When I played sports, I was the No. 3. When I played baseball, basketball, football, soccer, that's the number I chose," he said. "Even in football when I was a cornerback, I took the No. 3. I have pictures of every sport I've ever played with that number. It was just my favorite number, because of family. That’s the number I wore on my jerseys when I played sports, and I want to run it on the cars."

Childress used the number for six years as a driver, recording his best career finish -- third, appropriately, at Nashville in 1978 -- in the vehicle. He had primarily run the No. 96 car at the start of his career, but another driver named Ray Elder wanted it, so Childress switched to the No. 3. His hero Junior Johnson had won nine times in the vehicle, so there was an inherent connection there between two racers from the foothills of North Carolina. It also didn't hurt that using only a single digit would make the car less expensive to paint.

Austin gravitated to it naturally, seeing photos of his grandfather's old cars as a child, and learning more about Childress the driver as he got older. Growing up he would watch races on the couch with his grandmother, rooting for the No. 3. At the time, he had an ulterior motive -- when Earnhardt won, Childress would bring home pizza for the grandkids. As he grew older, the number stuck with him, as much a part of Dillon as his last name.

"As a kid, he was a big Dale Earnhardt fan," Childress remembered. "I've got pictures of him as a kid in a Goodwrench uniform with Chocolate holding him, Dale holding him as a baby. He's just always been like that. He used the No. 3 when he played in the (Little League) World Series. He had it on his go-karts. I've got these little cars, I just found them yesterday cleaning out the barn. They're these little go-karts, and both of them have the No. 3 on them, and they're beat all to pieces. He's always loved that number, and it's always what he wanted to use."

Plain and simple, for Austin Dillon the No. 3 has long been the family car. Even those from the outside can see the connection.

"It’s a family story," said Gregg Dorazio, manager of shopper marketing and motorsports for General Mills, whose Cheerios brand will sponsor the car along with Dow Chemical. "…  Through the years, it's been the Childress family, the Earnhardt family, and now the Dillon family. That's where it starts. And if you spend any time with these people, you see what it means to them just from that perspective. It's not to do with anything else. That’s a family thing, and it's something very personal, and we're just proud and honored to be a part of that."

Still, Childress knew it could be a polarizing decision. "Are you sure this is what you want to do?" he asked his grandson before the move was made official. Austin replied in the affirmative, saying he'd never driven anything else, and that he wanted to take the number -- his grandfather's number, now his number -- up to Sprint Cup. "We had quite a few discussions on it. Sure, there's pressure," Childress added. "But I think the pressure from the number drives him."

And in truth, he knows how to handle it. Dillon has lived with the No. 3 at the national level for more than four full-time seasons now, so he's used to this. No question, taking it to the Sprint Cup level for the first time in over a decade raises the attention level, and many will experience a swirl of emotions when the No. 3 returns to the track at Daytona. But the naysayers were there when he returned it to the national level in a truck, and were there when he returned it in a black car, and they'll be there when he returns it to the Daytona 500.

But he knows they're outnumbered by the more silent majority that has been waiting for the No. 3 to come back. He knows he has the blessing from the people who matter most. And he knows how to handle this situation just as he has the others before it.

"Approach it with grace," he said. "I had the peoples' approval that I felt I needed to be in the seat with the number. I've been able to run it for four years now, and have (had) so many good times with it. And to see the fans light up at every autograph session, to see if we're going to being it back, asking us questions. I might hear a jeer as I'm driving away down the track or something. But I never had anybody not positive about it. If I were getting beat up every time in went to an autograph session because we were thinking about it, it would definitely change your mind. But they were so excited about it. … They'd tap your card while you're signing it and tell you that. That’s what you remember at autograph sessions, people telling you things like that."

And that's why the No. 3, a number handed down from grandfather to grandson like the keys to the family sedan, will ride again.

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