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The No. 3 car wins the Daytona 500, a victory Dale Earnhardt would’ve appreciated

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Driving the iconic No. 3 car, Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 60th Annual Daytona 500
Austin Dillon celebrates winning the 2018 Daytona 500.
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The white slanted number is as sacred as it comes in motor sports. Revered by a legion of fans who identify it as the distinct marking of a man they lionized when he was alive and whose legion has only grown in the 17 years ago since his passing.

Yet as much as the No. 3 may mean to fans of Dale Earnhardt, the number carries even more significance to Austin Dillon, the winner of Sunday’s Daytona 500. Still, many believe the 27-year-old who drives for his grandfather’s team, Richard Childress Racing, doesn’t have the right to claim the No. 3 as his own.

The belief is that was Earnhardt’s number and when he was killed the on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, that number should be reserved for members of Earnhardt’s family or no one at all. No exceptions.

What many don’t realize, however, or simply to choose to ignore, is that the No. 3 was Childress’ long before it became Earnhardt’s. Childress had been using that number for five years as a struggling owner-driver who skimped and saved before Earnhardt joined his fledgling team in 1981.

But it was Earnhardt who became synonymous with the digit. An association forged by six Cup Series championships with that number on the side of his car and a swashbuckling driving stylish that earned him nicknames like “The Man in Black” and “The Intimidator.”

The perception that it was Earnhardt’s number and his alone only crystalized when Childress mothballed the No. 3 upon his good friend’s death. Essentially, the number was retired without it being officially recognized. Many preferred the number never return to the track.

Then after a 13-year absence, Childress brought the No. 3 back when Dillon progressed to the Cup Series full-time. Across the NASCAR landscape, the outrage was loud and Dillon was decried by fans for using a number many thought he didn’t deserve both by lineage and accomplishments.

Never mind the fact Dillon had as much claim to the number as anyone.

Growing up, Dillon revered his grandfather and whether it was in Little League or racing, he picked the No. 3 because he wanted to honor his “Pop-Pop.” Other numbers may have been available, but it didn’t matter. This was a family number that meant something special. Dillon even had to remind his grandfather of that when Childress suggested to his grandson about picking a different number when he first started racing.

“(Dillon) asked me about running the 3, I said, ‘You know, that was Dale’s number? That’s a famous number,’” Childress said. “He said, ‘No, it isn’t, it’s your number. You drove it, and that’s why I want to do it.’” That helped make my decision.

“But Dale made it famous, trust me.”

And still, fans haven’t accepted Dillon as the rightly heir to one of NASCAR’s most cherished numbers — arguably only the No. 43 is held in the same regard — even though he had the blessing of Earnhardt’s children, who understand the Childress family’s own connection. A belief that’s only intensified as Dillon produced a mixed bag of results featuring only a single victory in 157 career starts before getting his second win Sunday that left his grandfather struggling to find the right words.

“For all the No. 3 fans that stuck with us and pulled for Austin, I’m speechless, I guess,” Childress said.

The iconic No. 3 being back in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway came by virtue of an Earnhardt-like pass on the final lap of the Daytona 500. When leader Aric Almirola tried to throw a block on a charging Dillon, he was left with two options: either stay in the gas and not concede an inch to Almirola, or slow down and surely lose the NASCAR’s biggest race.

Only one acceptable answer exists and the resulting contact sent Almirola slamming into the backstretch wall, while Dillon swept into the lead. Aggressive, sure, but not dirty as Dillon never changed lanes and merely held his ground. Afterward, Almirola said there was no hard feelings because the stakes were so high. Not that Dillon cared any; a sentiment that should have Earnhardt fans nodding in appreciation.

“I did what I had to do there at the end,” Dillon. “We had a run and I stayed in the gas. It is what it is here at Daytona.”

It was the kind of win Earnhardt would’ve admired, Childress said. And he would know. Their relationship went far beyond boss-employee, they were best friends with indelible bond. And had Earnhardt been present Sunday, Childress knows precisely how he would’ve reacted.

“He would come over and grab Austin around the neck, put that old Dale Earnhardt hug on him, and tell him how proud he was of him,” Childress said. “I know right now he’s up there smiling down.”