CONCORD — Austin Dillon will kick off his full-time career as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver in 2014.
His choice of car could also help jump-start a legacy.
When Dillon starts the 2014 Daytona 500 in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3 Chevrolet, it will end a 467-race streak in which the No. 3 car – made famous by the late seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt – has not appeared in a series race.
The last time it was listed in the running order was Feb. 18, 2001, when Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap wreck at the Daytona 500.
It has been used by RCR in Truck and Nationwide series races since, but never the Cup series.
“There aren’t many people here who knew Dale Earnhardt as much as I did and spent as much time at the race track (with him) as I did,” team owner Richard Childress said at Wednesday’s announcement at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“He and I had discussed when he retired about what we were going to do with the No. 3, how he wanted to see the No. 3 racing for wins in the Cup series. He wanted to see the No. 3 car racing for championships.
“I know today that Dale is smiling down at this announcement and couldn’t be more proud.”
Since his death, Earnhardt has been honored by NASCAR, fans and tracks, and he was a member of the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The return to the track of the car number in which the racing icon accomplished so much is likely to renew interest in Earnhardt’s legacy.
“There is so much heritage behind the No. 3 with Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt made it famous. I drove it, Ricky Rudd drove it, several drivers drove it,” Childress said. “My hope is the Dale Earnhardt fans will be re-energized again and give them something to look at. You’re not going to please everyone. We know that. We’re going to do our best to make them proud and I know Austin will, too.”
Childress hopes even relatively new fans will find the move of interest as well.
“Fans will learn a lot more about the great Dale Earnhardt by watching it (on the track). There’s going to be a lot more talk, and a lot more energy built around it,” he said. “That’s the key thing I wanted to see.”
The decision to use the No. 3 was left up to Dillon, 23, who is Childress’ grandson and has already won championships in NASCAR’s Truck and Nationwide series.
He has used the number since he and his younger brother, Ty, first became interested in racing. Ty Dillon chose the No. 2, because their father, Mike, used it in his NASCAR career.
Austin chose the No. 3 in honor of his grandfather.
“He’s been great. He’s been pushing me in the right direction and teaching me to handle things the right way,” Dillon said of Childress. “Everybody knows who made this number famous, but with my grandfather and their friendship, they were able to build something great.”
The sponsors involved in Dillon’s Cup debut – Dow Chemical and General Mills – along with others who work in the sport are eager to see Dillon’s Cup debut with the No. 3.
To go along with Wednesday’s announcement, Cheerios launched a “Cheer the 3” campaign on social media to encourage fans to interact and receive unique content about Dillon and the No. 3 team during the 2014 season.
“We want these communities on Facebook and Twitter to be about the entire No. 3 experience, to be about Austin and tell a little bit of the story of his life off the track,” said Gregg Dorazio, manager of Shopper Marketing and Motorsports at General Mills. “We think the No. 3 is a family story and that’s what we want to bring to life.”
Marcus Smith, president of Charlotte Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports Inc., called the news “fantastic.”
“As a fan of racing, I love this,” Smith said. “I’m excited about it and I’ve been kind of waiting for it. It’s going to be a special time for race fans.
“Dale Earnhardt is like the Elvis of NASCAR. His presence is still larger than life, I think, in the sport. Even if you’re new to the sport, I think you have a reference and a recognition of his place in the sport.
“This is a neat way to start that fire again.”
Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.