NASCAR driver Austin Dillon was sitting in a low-slung lawn chair under the awning of his motorcoach in the Talladega Superspeedway infield a year ago, eyes hidden behind aviator shades. He wore the sunglasses partly for the cool factor, but mostly from being bleary-eyed after a late-night flight due to a sponsor-related appearance.
The subject strayed to the number on his car: 3.
"People here love to see it out front doing well," Dillon said. "You definitely feel people excited when you do get out in front. I feel like they're excited and cheering for me."
Funny predicament. People cheering for a number, not a driver.
Dillon's grandfather, Richard Childress, owned the car. And though numbers seem connected to drivers, NASCAR licenses them to team owners.
A fellow named Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove a No. 3 Childress Chevrolet to six of his seven Cup Series championships. After his death in 2001, no one used that number. Not until Childress determined it was time to bring the number back by putting it on his grandson's car in 2014.
The cheers for No. 3 rang out late Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway after Dillon earned his first victory in Cup Series competition by winning the Coca-Cola 600. You'd hope, after 132 previous starts, there was some bit of cheering for the driver, too.
"I know how special this was to all the 3 fans out there," Childress told reporters after the race. "I'd say it was 98 percent of the people wanted to see us bring it back. You can't believe how many people come up to me and tell me over the last three years how happy they are to see the 3 car back out there, to see Austin in it."
Said Dillon: "To be able to deliver a number that is legendary and has stats that are untouchable — just to add to those numbers (that were) something that (Childress) and his best friend were able to create, it's very special."
Dillon was a versatile young athlete who played in the Little League World Series. He always wore No. 3 on his jersey when it was available. And he remembers Dale Sr. with an odd bit of sentiment: Every time Earnhardt won a race, there would be a little extra celebration in the family and they would order pizza, always a treat for a kid.
Before Earnhardt drove the No. 3, Richard Childress drove a No. 3 car. Ray Fox and Junior Johnson were predecessors in a No. 3, and Childress liked them. But there was another factor.
"Back then, we had to paint the numbers on the car," Childress said. "It was a lot cheaper to put one digit on than two."
- Next race: AAA 400, Dover International Speedway, 1 p.m. EDT Sunday, FS1 TV.
- Pick to win: Jimmie Johnson, a 10-time winner at the track.
- Pit notes: How much longer can a company all about sweetness and joy — candy manufacturer Mars, Inc. — keep sponsoring the polar opposite of that, Kyle Busch? Granted it was at the end of a long day, but Busch picking his nose at the postrace news conference and a giving a surly six-word answer before dropping the mic Sunday night was inexcusable. "Not sure how or when 'hating losing' got defined in this manner, but I'm pretty sure it's the wrong way," tweeted fellow competitor Brad Keselowski. Number of Childress cars with playoff spots clinched: two. Number of Joe Gibbs Racing cars with playoff spots clinched: zero. JGR is winless 12 races into the season after having seven at this stage last year. Never content with its format, NASCAR is hinting about awarding more bonus points for wins in high-profile races, such as the Daytona 500, and having races divided into more segments.
- Fast Five: 1. Martin Truex Jr., 2. Johnson, 3. Kyle Larson, 4. Keselowski, 5. Busch.
- What they're saying: "I was on Twitter for a while. I had to get off of it because I wanted to invite them down to the Wal-Mart parking lot. I figured it was better." — Richard Childress
Contact Mark McCarter at email@example.com.