Austin Dillon the new No. 3 in NASCAR

Austin Dillon (3) drives through Turn 4 during qualifying for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday. Dillon won the pole position for this weekend's Daytona 500.

The emotions, never buried, will come rushing back for the still-large fan base Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.

The stylized No. 3 of Dale Earnhardt will appear in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race for the first time since his fatal wreck at the same track in 2001. Austin Dillon will carry the number as he starts on the pole in the first of two 150-mile Daytona Duels that will complete the field for the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

The decision of team owner Richard Childress to hand down the historic No. 3 to his grandson sparked a wide range of opinions. What of the opinion that carries the most weight?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. approves.

"I feel good with it," he said in a preseason media session.


The son of "The Intimidator" is aware of the number's history. Childress raced under the number. He put Earnhardt into the No. 3 after he won the first of his seven championships in 1980 with the No. 2 of Rod Osterlund's team.

Childress and Earnhardt were as close as any owner-driver combination could be. Earnhardt Jr. likes that Childress kept the number in the extended race family. Had Earnhardt Jr. balked, Childress would have had a hard decision.

Junior is comfortable

"I'm glad it's back," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's a good situation that I can be comfortable with. I'm happy for that, because it could have just as easily been a difficult situation that I wouldn't have been comfortable with."

Earnhardt Jr. has known Dillon since he was a kid running around the garage. Earnhardt Jr. respects him as a racer and as a person.

"Austin's a competitor," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He's a guy you're going to want to have to race to win. You won't even think about the '3' on the side. That will become normal."

For a while in Sunday's qualifying, Dillon and Earnhardt Jr. held the front-row spots for the 500. Dillon kept the pole but Earnhardt Jr. was bumped, cutting off what would have been a field day for conspiracy theorists. Dillon and Earnhardt Jr. will be together in the first Duel.

In the 500, Earnhardt Jr. will try to end an unexpected streak.


Like his father, Earnhardt Jr. took to restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. Earnhardt won seven of his first 19 races on those tracks.

The run stopped with a victory at Talladega in October 2004. Earnhardt Jr. is winless in his last 37 plate races.

Plate racing is different

Fox analyst Larry McReynolds said Earnhardt Jr. has not lost his edge as a racer on plate tracks. The differences are teams have made advancements in technology, and drivers such as Kurt Busch have become capable plate racers. Plate racing also offers the wild card of the big wreck that often arises in bunched fields.

"All races are hard to win, but it's hard to win a restrictor-plate race because you're at the mercy of what you do and … what other drivers are doing around you," said McReynolds, the crew chief for Earnhardt Sr. when he got his first Daytona 500 victory in 1998.

Earnhardt Jr. has not been in the back of the pack at Daytona during the plate drought. He has finished second in three of the last four 500s. He pushed race winner Jamie McMurray to the finish in 2010 and did the same with Jimmie Johnson last year.

"Never in any of those races did I have a situation where I went, 'I let it slip by; I messed up,'" Earnhardt Jr. said. "We run our guts out and just never had a chance to make a move on the guy leading the race."

If Earnhardt Jr. has to make a move on the No. 3 for the lead in the 500, he will do it. Earnhardt Jr. is not a wreck-to-win racer, but he will do everything else and "I wouldn't think twice about it." That's racing.

What To Read Next
Get Local