2014 Daytona 500: The legacy of the No. 3 remains ever strong

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

While respectful of the legacy, Austin Dillon forges his own identity with one of NASCAR’s most sacred numbers.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Though it's been 13 years since Dale Earnhardt ruled NASCAR with steely determination and an indiscriminate front bumper, his presence is still imposing.

You can see it when you look closely around Daytona International Speedway and see an abundance of memorabilia depicting Earnhardt's likeness, most notably, the flags with the indelible image of the slanted white No. 3 against a black backdrop.

And this year, perhaps more than any other since his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the No. 3 Earnhardt made famous — and infamous — has a featured role in the Great American Race.

"The legend of Dale has lived on for a long time and is going to continue to live on forever"-Austin Dillon

The increased visibility of the No. 3 is because of Austin Dillon, an energetic 23-year-old who is the grandson of Richard Childress, Earnhardt's longtime car owner and close friend.

After much deliberation, Childress elected to return the No. 3 to the highest level of NASCAR competition, a decision that while wildly popular wasn't universally embraced.

There are some who feel the number should have been permanently retired; an everlasting tribute to the man who won seven NASCAR championships and perished on the sport's grandest stage.

Many of those fans are the ones who still cling to Earnhardt's memory by proudly wearing faded black No. 3 hats and well-worn T-shirts.

One such devotee is Gregg McAdams, who was standing in Daytona's midway section outside of Turn 4 Sunday morning in an Earnhardt windbreaker with his drink nestled inside a black koozie adorned with the No. 3. McAdams called Earnhardt "The Man," a popular descriptor of the driver who became the embodiment of the blue-collar fan.

When asked his thoughts on Dillon, who in just a few hours would complete a fairytale lap to win the Daytona 500 pole, McAdams was dismissive.

"I don't know anything about him," he said. "I guess he's Richard's kid, and he's using Dale's number, which I'm not sure about. He hasn't done anything to deserve it."

Questioning whether Dillon is deserving of the No. 3 is another popular refrain among those opposed to seeing the No. 3 back on the track. Ignore the fact that NASCAR doesn't dispense numbers based solely on merit. Nor, has it ever retired a number.

When discussing the No. 3, logic often cannot be factored in because emotion is the overriding dynamic here. The number isn't merely a number for many, it's something more profound.

"When I see the 3 it means toughness, not taking any shit," said Jeff Welks, proudly flying a No. 3 flag atop his motorhome stationed in Daytona's infield. "Dale never backed down on the track, and who's to say Austin will have that same attitude? What happens if he gets pushed around? I don't want Dale's memory to be forgotten because some kid couldn't stand up for himself."

These sentiments seem to represent the minority, however.

During qualifying Sunday, as Dillon sped across the start/finish line with a time that vaulted him atop the leaderboard, an unmistakable roar emanated from the grandstands. It was hard not think that for many, seeing the No. 3 back at Daytona was some sort of cathartic release.

Perhaps fans may not necessarily be supporters of Dillon per se, but they certainly share a kinship.

Every step of the way the 23-year-old has been forthright about the respect and admiration he has for Earnhardt. He candidly describes the elation he experienced in 1998 standing in Victory Lane alongside Earnhardt celebrating his Daytona 500 win. The same joy many watching at home felt as Earnhardt finally won the race that painstakingly eluded him for 20 years.

Danny Lawrence, RCR's chief engine builder who worked closed with Earnhardt, was among those hesitant about seeing the No. 3 return, particularly at Daytona. But having been around Dillon he is now a convert.

"On the sentimental side, I've really been pretty good about this 3 thing," Lawrence said. "But when I saw that car hit the racetrack today, it kind of tore me up a little bit. But Austin is such a good guy, and he has been great for our company."

Evidence suggests Lawrence isn't an anomaly in accepting Dillon as an appropriate heir to the No. 3 Chevrolet, as his souvenir stand has been a popular stop among fans at Daytona.

"Sales are up huge, people are excited," said Jim Gay, who runs the Dillon merchandise trailer but declined to provide specific numbers.

Of the people he's talked to, Gay estimates 90 percent are in favor of Dillon driving the No. 3 car.

"When we're going down the road (with the souvenir hauler) you should see the fans," Gay said. "They're waving, and honking, and just excited. It's cool."

It's no surprise then that the best-selling T-shirt features the slogan, "The 3 Legacy Continues," Gay said.

The No. 3 is back on the track, but the truth is the number never really was gone. It's always been and will continue to have a presence — whether it's Dillon or someone else behind the wheel of a No. 3 car.

"The legend of Dale has lived on for a long time and is going to continue to live on forever," Dillon said. "Dale Earnhardt is not just famous because of the number. He is Dale Earnhardt. He was a hero in everybody's mind, including myself.

"As far as Dale, Dale is going to fly here forever. That's the coolest thing about everything that's going on."

All one has to do is take a look around Daytona to understand Dillon speaks the truth.

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