Dale Earnhardt passed away just over 10 years ago and since that fateful day at Daytona there has not been a No. 3 on the track for a Cup race. The number has been run occasionally in the Nationwide series since then and has been run for more than the last year in the Truck series.
While that number became synonymous with Earnhardt over the last 17 years of his career, it was not his for his entire career. The number has been with Richard Childress since 1976 when he became a full-time car owner in the series and that is why, when it comes back to the track, it will once again be on the side and the roof of a car owned by Childress.
Childress ran one race in the Cup Series in 1969 but seriously started racing in the Cup Series in 1971 driving for Tom Garn in 11 out of 12 races he attempted that year in the No. 96 car. The following year he was listed as the owner on the No. 96 for 15 races before Garn was back as the owner in 1973 for 25 races. The following two years Childress ran all but one race for Garn, again piloting the No. 96 for all of them before he started his own racing team in 1976 and fielding the No. 3 for the whole season.
Childress drove for himself until 20 races into the 1981 season when, for the first time, he chose to put Earnhardt in the No. 3. Earnhardt ran the last three races of the season, scoring two top fives and six top 10s, but Childress felt that the cars they were fielding were not up to Earnhardt’s ability and recommended that the Intimidator take his talents elsewhere until his organization was more competitive.
Over the next two seasons it was Ricky Rudd behind the wheel of the No. 3 while Earnhardt was driving for 2011 Hall of Fame inductee Bud Moore in the No. 15. By 1984, Earnhardt was ready to come back to Childress even though his longtime friend wasn’t sure the race team was yet up to the ability of Earnhardt. While it took a couple of years to ultimately win the first championship for Richard Childress Racing, the No. 3 had begun to become known as “Earnhardt’s Number” even though it was really Childress’s number all along.
Fast forward to 2008, when Childress’s grandson Austin Dillon began driving in a national touring series, taking to the track in the K&N Pro East Series (then the Camping World East series) driving a car with a No. 3 on the side. The No. 3 had always adorned the side of Dillon’s vehicle from the beginning of his go-kart career as a child. When he got ready to race in the touring series, he asked his grandfather if it was OK for him to run the number that had been associated with him since he started owning racecars, and Childress couldn’t help but say yes.
Childress has been quoted in the past saying that he doesn’t think the No. 3 should be retired and that someday it will be back on the track. While not specifically tagging Dillon with the responsibility, he noted that he’d be proud to see either Austin or his brother Ty finally put it back on the track in the Cup Series. With Dillon currently piloting the No. 3 truck in the Camping World Truck Series and his grandfather planning to run him in the Nationwide series next year, it appears as though the signs are pointing to the famous No. 3 returning to the Cup series somewhere around 2013 or 2014.
It is interesting to note that there has been very little negativity associated with Dillon running the number in the Truck Series. Most likely that is because he has a direct connection to the owner who has fielded the number since 1976 and most of the fans – especially diehard Earnhardt followers – have seemed to defer to Childress when it came to the handling of the number. Many of them called for it to be retired shortly after Earnhardt’s death but supported Childress when he stated he’d bring the number back when the time was right, knowing he would do the number justice as long as he’s involved in the Cup Series.
When the time is right the No. 3 will be back in the Cup Series and it most certainly will be piloted by Austin Dillon who will continue the legacy of the number established by his grandfather and merely carried on and enhanced by Dale Earnhardt.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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