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Dillon Will Never Be More Than ‘Driver Of The 3’

[1]In a 10-day span, we saw Dale Earnhardt Jr drive the No. 3 Wrangler Chevy to victory lane [2] in the Nationwide Series Subway Jalapeño 250 at Daytona International Speedway and we saw Austin Dillon, grandson of owner Richard Childress, drive the black No. 3 Bass Pro Shops Chevy to victory lane [3] in the Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 200 at Iowa Speedway.

As I watched Dale Jr drive that famed No. 3 to the front and take the checkered flag, I was emotional. It was an incredible sight to see a man who has been scrutinized so heavily due to his lackluster results in the Sprint Cup Series go out and honor his father with a win. More impressive when you consider that he hasn’t won a Nationwide Series race in four years. Everything seemed right with the NASCAR world.

Fast-forward 10 days…

As I watched Austin Dillon take the checkered flag in the famed No. 3, I wasn’t emotional. I wasn’t connected to it. As a matter of fact, I felt more upset than anything else.

I have nothing against Austin Dillon — I don’t know much about him. Nor do I have anything against Richard Childress deciding to let his grandson run the legendary number — it’s his number to use as he sees fit, and it’s the number he drove before Dale Sr drove it.

But something about seeing someone not named Earnhardt drive the No. 3 in one of NASCAR’s top three series didn’t feel right — seeing that person drive to victory made it even more unsettling.

If Dale Sr retired, I wouldn’t be writing this column. If he had passed on due to natural causes, I wouldn’t be writing this. But he didn’t. He died doing what he loved, in a car that he made famous, at a track that he battled through his entire career. And that makes his connection to the No. 3 special. In some ways, it’s more than just a number.

And, putting Austin Dillon in a truck with that number is like putting a target on his back. It’s almost ensuring that he will never be judged as Austin Dillon. I don’t think he’ll ever be able to get out of that number’s shadow.  

David Newton, of ESPN, wrote in a column [4]:

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. … 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.

Again, I think the Childress should use the number as he sees fit. He has the rights to it. But, given the way Dale Earnhardt Sr died, and his seemingly eternal connection to that number, it seems certain that anyone running the number not named Earnhardt will forever be known as “driver of the 3.”

Why would Childress want that for his grandson?

At this point, I don’t think it’s as big of a deal. Seeing a No. 3 — a black No. 3 — in the Camping World Truck Series is not like seeing one in the Nationwide Series or the Sprint Cup Series. Seeing a truck with the famed three on the track doesn’t elicit the same kind of emotion that seeing a car with that number on the track will.

And, if Dillon doesn’t perform up to that number’s reputation, it’s sure to subject him to more scrutiny than any rookie that’s come before him. Again, why would Childress want that kind of pressure for his grandson?

I hope at some point Childress will realize that the No. 3 is a liability more than it is an asset, and will decide to run Dillon in another number. If he doesn’t, I think Dillon will always be “driver of the 3.”

So, if in the future Childress decides to run Dillon in the No. 3 in N’Wide or Cup, Dillon will not be judged on his own merits, as Newton hopes. He never will as long as he has that number.  He’ll always be “driver of the 3.”

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Lead-Lap.com.