The much-anticipated and long-awaited announcement was made Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where car owner Richard Childress introduced his grandson, Austin Dillon, as driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet. Together with officials representing sponsors from Dow Chemical and General Mills, they then unveiled two versions of the No. 3 race car that Dillon will pilot in 2014 for Richard Childress Racing.
The No. 3 last ran in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series when Dale Earnhardt drove it in the 2001 Daytona 500, when the NASCAR Hall of Famer died as a result of injuries sustained in an accident on the last lap of the race. Childress said only a short time before that tragedy he had a conversation with Earnhardt, who told him then that he hoped someone would one day carry on the tradition of driving the No. 3 when he no longer could.
Earnhardt won seven NASCAR Sprint Cup championships (six of them in the No. 3 car), tied for most in NASCAR history with Richard Petty, before his death.
"Having my own grandson be able to get in the car is really special," Childress said. "I just think back to the conversation Dale Earnhardt and I had riding back one night from a hunt in New Mexico.
"Those are the kind of things that help you feel good about, 'Hey, it's time to bring it back – and to bring it back with family.' I would never put anyone in it except an Earnhardt or one of my family members."
Dillon drove the No. 3 Chevy to championships in both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2011 and last year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. He said he believes the success he enjoyed in both series helped give him credibility with fans who otherwise may have doubted if he deserved to drive the No. 3 in NASCAR's premier series.
"Obviously, this sport is built off of performance," Dillon said. "It takes time to perform at different levels. I feel like I'm committed to staying where I need to be with performance, and if we surround ourselves with the right people and work hard, my grandfather has done a great job over the years of figuring out how to run up front and how to win.
"So I'm excited. I feel like I'm ready."
Childress and Dillon said that response from fans has been overwhelmingly positive about bringing the No. 3 back to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Dillon also said he wouldn't have agreed to drive the car if he hadn't previously received the blessings of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kelley Earnhardt Miller and others associated with the Earnhardt inner circle. All of them encouraged him and said the elder Earnhardt would have approved.
"You have to be comfortable with what you're doing and, I guess, approach it with grace," Dillon said. "I got the approval of the people I felt I needed to get in the seat with the number. I've been able to run it for four years now, and have so many good times with it.
"To see the fans' eyes light up at every autograph session, asking us if we're going to bring it back, asking us those questions, I really had no doubt this was the right thing to do. … At autographs, I've never had anybody not be positive about it. If I was getting beat up every time I went to an autograph session, that would make you think twice about it. But every time it was like, 'Man, we want to see that number back. We're excited about it.'"
Childress, who used to drive the No. 3 car himself before he became an owner, said that Dillon always has held a certain fascination and respect regarding the number.
"As a kid, Austin was a big Dale Earnhardt fan," Childress said. "I've got pictures of him as a kid in a Goodwrench uniform with Dale holding him and (long-time Earnhardt pit crew member) Chocolate (Myers) holding him as a baby. He used the No. 3 when he played in the Little League World Series. He had it on his gokarts.
"I just found these little go-karts while cleaning out the barn (Tuesday). There were two of them and both of them had the No. 3 on 'em. They were beat all to pieces, but he's always loved that number and that's what he always wanted to be associated with. As he got older and understood that I was a driver, and watching Dale, he understood the history of the number."