Friday, 21 February 2014 | MYT 4:17 AM

No. 3 returns at Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - For 13 years following the death of NASCAR's seven-time champion driver Dale Earnhardt in a crash at Daytona International Speedway, no car in the Daytona 500 bore the famed "No. 3" that Earnhardt drove.

That will change on Sunday when Austin Dillon, the 23-year grandson of Earnhardt's car owner, Richard Childress, takes the track from pole position for the Daytona 500 in a Chevrolet No. 3 in the same font used by the man known as "The Intimidator."

"Today I just tried to keep my focus on qualifying the car," Dillon said about handling the pressure of following Earnhardt after posting a top qualifying speed of 196.019 mph.

"You want to perform with the No. 3, and everybody wants to see it perform, and that's why my grandfather is always concerned. You want to go out there and run well."

Although other famous NASCAR drivers had previously driven with the No. 3, the car number took on almost religious significance to the legions of Earnhardt fans who held up three fingers on lap three at many NASCAR races after his death.

"Our sport is entirely different than other sports with respect to numbers because there are only 43 drivers, let's say, that really compete," said former Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman.

"That number was Dale Earnhardt's number," said Newman. "That number was also Ricky Rudd's number and Richard Childress's (as a driver) number. Just so happens Dale Earnhardt made it the most famous."

Unlike some other professional sports, car numbers are never retired.

NASCAR licenses the numbers to the car's owner, which is how Childress has maintained a lock on the No. 3.

Childress was concerned about possible backlash from Earnhardt fans since Dillon's qualifying run marked the first time the number had been used in a top-level NASCAR event since his death on the last lap of the 2001 race.

"You're not going to have everyone support it to start with," Childress said in a television documentary about the return of the No. 3.

"Our goal is to win them all over and let them (fans) understand what we're doing for the legacy of Dale Earnhardt...that this is going to be a positive for their hero."

Martha Earnhardt, the late Earnhardt's mother, is yet to be won over.

"I have mixed feelings because I was told that I would never see a No. 3 on the race track after Dale died," she said.

"I can understand it to a point. I know it was Richard's (Childress) number when he drove and this is his grandson, and I understand that, can sort of deal with it, but I don't want to see the black No. 3 just like Dale's."

Earlier this year, Childress told reporters "that decision was actually made 14 years ago, when Dale and I were talking about his retirement, what he wanted to do when he retired, how he wanted to help me with the '3' and the team to go out and put a driver in it that could go out and win championships."

Childress said it was understood he would wait for the right person to put in the car.

"Yeah, if Dale Jr. had wanted to do it, or (daughter) Kelley Earnhardt, or Kerry or now Jeffrey, whoever - it would be an Earnhardt or one of my family who would get in that '3' car," said Childress.

"That decision was made 14 years ago, as me and him sat in an old car there in the rain one day, talking about his retirement."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, thinks putting Dillon in his father's No. 3 is a good idea.

"It's going to come back ... and this is a great time to do it," Earnhardt Jr. said in the documentary.

"Austin is going to do a good job on the track and run well. I think people will get more and more comfortable with it. The ones who aren't...I think they are the minority."

"It will be special for all of us, I'm sure."


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