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No. 3 car to return to NASCAR Sprint Cup competition

The iconic No. 3 will be raced in NASCAR's top series for the first time since Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001.

Streeter Lecka

The number once famously used by the late Dale Earnhardt will return to competition in NASCAR's premiere division beginning in 2014.

Richard Childress, Earnhardt's longtime car owner and confidant, revealed Wednesday that his grandson Austin Dillon will use the iconic No. 3 as he embarks upon his rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series.

The 3 has not been used in Cup since Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Following his death, Childress rebranded the car to No. 29, which was raced by Kevin Harvick until the end of the 2013 season.

"My hope is that Dale Earnhardt fans will be re-energized," Childress said. "We know we aren't going to please everyone. We are going to do our best to make them proud and I know Austin will. I think the new fans will learn a lot about the great Dale Earnhardt by watching this."

"My hope is that Dale Earnhardt fans will be re-energized. We know we aren't going to please everyone. We are going to do our best to make them proud and I know Austin will."-Richard Childress

That Childress chose to reintroduce the 3 is no surprise, as Dillon has used the number throughout his career including championship seasons in the Nationwide and Truck Series. The 3 was first used by Dillon in NASCAR national competition in 2009.

Since Earnhardt's death, Childress has continued to license the No. 3 from NASCAR with the sole purpose of blocking others from taking the number. He has remained steadfast that if the 3 were to return to the track it would be because one of Earnhardt's family members or his own decided to use it. And as Childress has gradually brought the 3 back onto the national scene, he has consulted with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister, Kelley, along the way. Both have enthusiastically expressed their approval.

Ultimately, however, the decision to use the 3 belonged to Dillon, who has embraced the challenges of using a number long symbolic with one of the sport's most popular drivers. The 23-year-old selected 3 when his racing career began because it was the number his grandfather used when he was a driver in the 1960s and '70s. It was his way of paying homage to his family's NASCAR legacy.

"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.

"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.'"

The No. 3 team will be sponsored by Dow Chemical, General Mills' Cheerios brand and Bass Pro Shops. RCR also announced Wednesday that Dillon will work with crew chief Gil Martin, who had guided Harvick to third-place points finishes in three of the last four years.

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