What's in a number? If it's a 3, plenty

July, 12, 2010

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- So Austin Dillon, how did it feel on Sunday to become the first driver in NASCAR's top three series to take the black No. 3 to Victory Lane since Dale Earnhardt's death? Do you feel pressure driving the No. 3? Are you intrigued by the power of the No. 3? Do you see yourself driving the No. 3 for the rest of your career? Can the No. 3 stop global warming?

OK, nobody asked the last question.

But all the rest and more were. The number Earnhardt drove to six of his seven Sprint Cup championships got as much or more attention during Monday's conference call as the person who won with it in the Truck series race at Iowa.

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John Sommers II/Getty ImagesAustin Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, piloted the famed black No. 3 into Victory Lane at Iowa Speedway on Sunday.

It's time for this to stop.

Let Dillon be Dillon, not Dillon the driver of the 3.

If Richard Childress wants his grandson in the 3, then let him be without all the Earnhardt hubbub. Dillon doesn't want to replace Earnhardt anymore than Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who a week earlier won a Nationwide race in a blue and yellow No. 3. He's just carrying on the family tradition that began when Childress took the number in 1976 and drove it for six years before turning it over to Earnhardt late in the 1981 season.

And even then Earnhardt didn't drive the number full-time until 1984.

Earnhardt wasn't the first famous driver with the 3 on the side of his car and hopefully he won't be the last. It was the number of NASCAR founder Bill France when he raced on the beaches of Daytona before there was a NASCAR.

Everyone from Bill Snowden to Fireball Roberts to Junior Johnson to Cale Yarborough to David Pearson drove with that number during their careers. It belongs on the track.

"It's a powerful number," Dillon said. "It makes the people in the stands stand up and cheer. I love driving it. It's a lot of fun."

It should be. It shouldn't be a burden as Earnhardt Jr. has sometimes been made to feel when he's climbed into a 3 car. It shouldn't be all about honoring Earnhardt, either.

Do you think the "Intimidator" thought about Pearson or Yarborough when he stepped into the 3? Doubt it.

Dillon shouldn't have to think about Earnhardt.

Fortunately, it sounds like Dillon has his head in the right place when it comes to the number. He likes the attention the number gets because he knows that, in turn, gets him attention. He likes the challenge of winning with the number because what he wants to do more than anything is win.

Since his last name isn't Earnhardt, he doesn't feel the pressure to carry on that legacy.

I'm betting one day we'll see Dillon drive the 3 in the Cup series. He's doing well in the Truck series with finishes of fifth, third and first in the past three races to improve to seventh in the standings.

He had a good run going at New Hampshire in the Nationwide Series before an incident left him 25th, and there are talks about him running in future events. At 20, he could easily be in the top series in two or three years.

When he makes it, and if Childress wants to put him in the 3, he should be judged on his own merits and not compared to the number's former driver.

"Like you said, there is pressure behind it," Dillon said. "The fans want it to run well when it's out on the track. It's something you have to take on, and take on as a challenge, is the way I look at it.

"It's different, like you said, from Dale to me, from family background. I do enjoy running it. But it's grandfather's decision when we run it and how long we run it."

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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