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Caraviello: 3 is Earnhardt's number, but now it's Dillon's car

July 11, 2012, David Caraviello,

He clearly has the ability, with a championship in the Camping World Truck Series and the first of what may be several Nationwide tour victories to his credit. He has the bloodline, with a father and a grandfather who both competed at NASCAR's national levels. He has the look, that big white cowboy hat acting like a magnet for photographers and helping him stand out from the crowd. He's getting that slightest bit of an outlaw reputation, not because of his driving, but due to technical violations discovered on his race car in each of the past two weekends.

And he has the number. The number, that 3 on the side of his vehicle. And with every passing race, it becomes a little more his, and it gets a little more difficult to envision Austin Dillon driving anything else when he inevitably makes the step up to NASCAR's premier series.

"I'd be excited to run it. I still would love the approval of my grandfather and the guys. Seeing more fans each and every week come up to him is the best way to do it -- more people come to him wanting to see it."


What's the old adage about possession being nine-tenths of ownership? (Yes, the phrase ends with "the law," but we all know what it's referring to.) It's certainly the case here, as Dillon continues to take large steps forward in his career, all while piloting a vehicle that bears the same number used by an iconic hero who passed away 11 years ago. The No. 3 will always be Dale Earnhardt's, just as the No. 43 will always be Richard Petty's, just as the No. 24 will always be Jeff Gordon's. Nothing will ever change that. Those numerals are as much a part of those drivers as their voices or facial features, now and forever essential pieces of their identity and legend.

But the idea that the No. 3 should be packed away in a box and put in a closet makes less and less sense with every passing year. First, the number returned to Victory Lane in a Nationwide car driven at Daytona International Speedway by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Then it returned to regular competition with Dillon in the Truck Series. Dillon's move up to the Nationwide ranks this year marked the first time a black car with a No. 3 on the side was a regular participant at NASCAR's national level since that bleak day so many years ago when the Intimidator hit the wall in final corner of the Daytona 500. Since then, little by little, the dust has been knocked off. Gradually the No. 3 has become a presence again, something fans are accustomed to seeing on the race track. It will never be just another car, not with its history. Familiarity, though, does carry a degree of acceptance.

And we're getting more used to seeing Dillon behind the wheel, making it seem only natural that he'll take the number with him when he moves to the Sprint Cup level -- which at this rate won't be very long. No question that's a big step up, both for the driver and this latest incarnation of the No. 3 car. Seeing it compete against other vehicles like a red No. 24 and a blue No. 2 will surely bring memories flooding back for some watching in the grandstand and on television. But make no mistake, that day is coming. Because although the No. 3 will always belong to Dale Earnhardt, right now it's Austin Dillon's car.

Give credit: Dillon and grandfather Richard Childress have handled this exactly the right way. The driver shows complete respect for the number's history anytime he's asked about it, which these days is about once every other week. The car owner has phased the No. 3 back into competition slowly, and only because his grandkids wanted to use the number their Pop-Pop -- Childress piloted a No. 3 car from 1976-81 during his driver/owner days -- used to employ. This is not some overnight decision, no sudden revelation. Anyone who has been watching NASCAR over the past few years knows what is coming and has had plenty of time to prepare for it. Expecting anything other than Dillon in a No. 3 car at the Sprint Cup level is to live in denial.

And you know what? It's all right, because it's all right with the principals involved. Dillon clearly gets it. "I'd be excited to run it," he said last week at Daytona. "I still would love the approval of my grandfather and the guys. Seeing more fans each and every week come up to him is the best way to do it -- more people come to him wanting to see it. I enjoy running it where I'm at right now. It's going great. Cup is a lot of pressure, and with that number it would be even more pressure, it pushes you harder. We'll see. Time will tell. I'm happy where I'm at right now. We'll just have to wait and see."

Earnhardt Jr. went on record last fall, giving his stamp of approval to Dillon's use of his dad's former number. "I don't look at the numbers tied to drivers as much as the history of the number," he said in November. "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. ... 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 [it]. ... 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."

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In reality, it comes down to Childress, who was as close to the elder Earnhardt as anyone, and would be best to judge how his old friend might feel. After Dillon's first Nationwide Series victory two weeks ago at Kentucky Speedway, Childress pointed out that the No. 3 has been his family's number, and that he wouldn't allow anyone other than an Earnhardt or a Dillon to drive it in the Truck Series, where Dillon's younger brother Ty currently pilots an entry bearing that numeral. "Once we get done with the trucks, with Ty and Austin, no one will ever drive that [No.] 3 again unless it's one of their children or an Earnhardt," Childress said then. "So that's where it stands."

But on the sport's premier level? There he left himself some wiggle room wide enough to drive a transporter through. "You know, Dale Earnhardt made that stylized 3 famous. And we don't have any intentions of running the stylized 3 in Cup," Childress said. "We don't have any intentions. That always leaves an opening. But right now, we don't have any intentions of running that stylized 3 in the Cup [Series]. That leaves an opening, doesn't it?"

Indeed it does. The "stylized" 3 is the famous forward-slanted, trademarked digit that Earnhardt used throughout most of his Cup career and Dillon now employs in the Nationwide ranks. Childress has been in this business a long time, and he's a shrewd operator, and it all seems quite plausible that Dillon could one day drive a Sprint Cup car that bears a number that's the same as the one the late seven-time champion used, but not identical. A No. 3, but not the No. 3, if you will. It would be a smart compromise, one that would allow Dillon to carry on a family tradition and continue to build his own identity, yet leave a large part of the Earnhardt legacy intact.

So yes, by all appearances that day is coming. No matter how successful he is as a driver, Dillon will never become as synonymous with the number as his predecessor, a once-in-a-lifetime figure who captured so many hearts and minds. But a No. 3 car -- right now that's his, solely and completely, as much a part of Dillon as that big white cowboy hat. Every indication points to that continuing to be the case when he reaches the Sprint Cup level. And given the talent he's shown on the track and the respect he's shown off it, it's hard to believe that even the Intimidator himself would mind.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.