DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Richard Childress pumped his fist above his head, emphatically celebrating his grandson’s latest accomplishment.
It was a rare show of emotion from the usually stoic team owner.
Then again, this moment was far from normal. Austin Dillon took the iconic No. 3 — the number the late Dale Earnhardt drove to 67 wins and six of his seven championships — out of pseudo-retirement and put it back atop the scoring tower at Daytona International Speedway.
Dillon might as well have grabbed the largest Earnhardt tribute flag ever made and waved it all around NASCAR’s most famous track.
“The 3 is special to all of us,” Childress said. “The family, the Earnhardt family, to every one of us, but I think it’s special because Austin, our family, is in the car.”
Dillon will be the talk of the Daytona — and of all of racing — for the next six days after winning the pole for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500.
The famed number already was in the spotlight as Childress decided to put it back on track in the Sprint Cup Series for the first time since his driver and friend’s fatal accident in the 2001 Daytona 500. Dillon made its return an emphatic one.
“The legend of Dale has lived on for a long time and is going to continue to live on forever,” Dillon said before his pole-sitting run. “Dale Earnhardt is not just famous because of the number. He is Dale Earnhardt. He was a hero in everybody’s mind, including myself. … That’s the coolest thing about everything that’s going on.”
Fans still lamenting the loss of Earnhardt may have mixed emotions about seeing another driver in the No. 3.
But those closest to the “Intimidator” welcomed its return.
“I think it’s great for Austin and Richard, grandson and grandfather being able to come together and doing something like that with a number that’s been in their family for so many years,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “It has a lot of history inside their family. … I’m happy for them.
“Once we get out on the racetrack … you won’t even think about the 3 on the side. That will sort of become normal. I’m glad that it’s back. It was going to come back. … It’s a good situation that I can be comfortable with, and I’m happy for that because it could have just as easily been a difficult situation that I wouldn’t have been comfortable with.”
Childress kept the stylized version of the No. 3, but tweaked the color scheme. He switched it from a white number with red trimming to a red number with black trimming.
That was enough to satisfy Dale Sr.’s mother, Martha, who had been uneasy about seeing it back on the track.
“I know it was Richard’s number when he drove and this is his grandson, and I understand that,” Martha Earnhardt said in an interview with Fox Sports 1. “As long as they don’t make it look like the No. 3. If they painted it a different color, I can sort of deal with it, but I don’t want to see the black No. 3 there just like Dale’s.”
Others just knew it was time.
And NASCAR certainly was onboard with it. Industry leaders have promoted the return of the No. 3 as one of the biggest story lines heading into the season.
“I think everybody had reservations at one point in time,” former Earnhardt crew member Danny “Chocolate” Myers said. “Then you think about it and grow into it and realize it’s just time.”
Myers drove from North Carolina to Daytona Beach on Sunday, listening to qualifying on the radio and going through the tear-filled euphoria of Dillon’s 196 mph run to the nervous wait afterward, making sure it held up. It did, and Myers arrived just in time to hug Dillon in Victory Lane.
“I had my moment, I won’t lie to you,” Myers said. “It’s a big deal for me, and the 3’s part of it.
“But this is a kid I got to see grow up. I’m a Dale Jr. fan, not because he’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. and not because he’s Dale Earnhardt’s son. But because he’s a kid I got to see grow up. It’s the same with Austin, and that’s means a lot to it. To do this today, it’s a big, big deal.”
Engine builder Danny Lawrence explained why better than everyone else.
“It’s no secret that when we lost Dale, we rode an adrenaline for a little while there,” said Lawrence, who started with the company before the 1998 Daytona 500. “When you’ve got a guy that’s driving for you that’s your friend and to me the best race car driver out there, it’s just about impossible to recover from that.”
But Dillon’s given the team a shot in the arm, especially some relatively lean years.
The next step is getting the No. 3 back in Victory Lane. If that happens, look for Childress to really let loose in celebration.
“You know, the emotion will fly if the 3 rolls in there on Sunday,” he said. “I won’t hold it back, I promise.”