SPARTA — There was a time when the debut of the No. 3 car in a Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway would have been one of the signature moments in the commonwealth's sports history.
At exactly 7:41 p.m. Saturday night, that moment finally came.
The car number that the late Dale Earnhardt made iconic started the Fourth Annual Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts in the 16th position Saturday evening piloted by Austin Dillon. The Cup Series rookie finished 16th.
Thirteen years after the Man in Black died in a crash on the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, his longtime car owner, Richard Childress, brought the No. 3 back to Sprint Cup this year.
Driving the car is Childress's 24-year-old grandson, Dillon, a promising driver who was the 2013 Nationwide Series champion and 2011 Camping World Truck Series champ.
The 3 was the number Earnhardt drove to six of his seven season championships. With its black paint scheme, the No. 3 became integral to Earnhardt's lore as The Intimidator.
Driving a 3 car in Sprint Cup would be like wearing No. 23 for the Chicago Bulls or No. 18 for the Indianapolis Colts.
Can you imagine the pressure?
Yet Dillon says the fan reaction has "been great. They've really let me relax and enjoy my rookie season (so) I've been able to focus on racing. Everybody knows that we are learning right now, going through a strong learning curve."
As much as the number 3 is associated with Earnhardt, NASCAR says Dillon is the 74th different driver to pilot a car with that number in the Cup series.
NASCAR assigns car numbers to team owners. Before he hired Earnhardt to drive the No. 3 car in 1981, Childress drove the No. 3 himself.
Once Dillon decided to go racing, he drove a No. 3 his whole life — from go-karts through his championship seasons in trucks and Nationwide.
Dillon began his first Cup season in the No. 3 by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and finishing ninth. That, however, was his only Top 10 finish this season going into Saturday night. He was 18th in points coming to Kentucky.
Those who travel week-to-week with NASCAR say there was a bit of an uproar about the No. 3's return before the Daytona 500. One of those questioning it was the late Earnhardt's mother, Martha, who said she had "mixed feelings."
However, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has vigorously supported the return of the 3 to Cup.
"I feel like Austin has carried that number as his own," Earnhardt Jr. told FOXSports.com. "He's made his own impact and legacy with the number. He's won championships and races and used it all his life — ever since he was in sports. It means a lot to him.
"Plus, people forget about the history of the number with Richard. It was Richard's number to begin with — and that's (Dillon's) grandfather. So there's a unique story line with Austin and the number that has nothing to do with Dale Earnhardt.''
NASCAR observers say, since the Daytona 500, much of the heat around the return of the 3 seems to have dissipated. That certainly appeared to be the case Saturday in Sparta.
In a random sample of fans who were wearing caps or T-shirts bearing the old No. 3 of Earnhardt, most were OK with the return of the number to Sprint Cup competition.
Which is not to say everyone was.
"I was kind of hoping (the 3) wouldn't be back unless it was Junior," said Larry Goodlett of Willisburg. "I'd rather have seen it not come back at all unless it was another Earnhardt driving it. But there's nothing you can do about it."
Conversely, Tom Lewis of Miamisburg, Ohio, said if NASCAR had "retired" the No. 3, they would have needed to do the same for Richard Petty's No. 43.
Noting that the No. 3 Dillon is driving has a very different paint scheme (at Kentucky, it was yellow) than Earnhardt's did, Lewis said, "I'm glad it's not black like his was."
Junior Mott of New Albany, Ind., said, "I'm excited to see (the 3) back. It's tradition. (Childress) kept it in the family (with) a good, young driver."
John Fulliam of St. Louis said, "It's probably been enough time now. It's probably a good thing to get it back out there."
Dillon said he understands the responsibility he bears through his choice in car numbers.
"Always," he said. "I'm putting a lot of responsibility on my shoulders to go out and run well."
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.