CONCORD, N.C. – As strange as it may sound, it is both difficult and refreshingly simple to explain what and how much it means to have the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet back in Victory Lane in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Austin Dillon put it there in Sunday’s rain-delayed Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, inheriting the lead when leader Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel just two laps from the finish.
Dillon, running his own fuel-mileage gambit, hung on for the first win of his young career in the car number made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt.
The simple part to understand is the family dynamic of the win – the first for the RCR No. 3 in a Cup car since Earnhardt won at Talladega in October of 2012. Earnhardt passed away in a tragic last-lap accident in the Daytona 500 the following February.
Earnhardt drove the No. 3 to six of his record-tying seven Cup championships for car owner and close friend Richard Childress. When he died, Childress understandably put the No. 3 in mothballs indefinitely.
Childress brought it back gradually, first letting Austin run it in the lower-level NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series. He always said he didn’t want to put just anyone in it – and Austin is his grandson.
Ty Dillon, Austin’s younger brother, also has driven the No. 3 in the lower series. And both of the grandsons have won races in it in those series. But that wasn’t at NASCAR’s highest level of competition.
Finally, prior to the 2014 season, Childress and Dillon made the grand announcement – at Charlotte Motor Speedway, no less – that they would bring the No. 3 back to the Cup Series. They just didn’t figure then that it would take more than three seasons and a total of 133 races before Dillon could get to Victory Lane in Cup.
Now he’s done it. That part of it is simple.
“I’m so proud,” Childress said.
He also was understandably flooded with raw emotion. It hit him during a post-race interview on pit road.
“When I looked up and seen the 3 at the top of the board, at the Coke 600, knowing my grandson was in it, how special it was for all the fans, that’s when I got emotional,” Childress said. “It’s so special to see that 3 in winner’s circle again.”
The difficult part to comprehend about the No. 3 winning again? That some folks simply can’t appreciate it for what it is.
Dillon acknowledged that over the last three-plus years he’s heard and read the haters on social media who claimed he didn’t deserve to drive the car that carried the number Earnhardt made famous. He heard the whispers – actually, they were more like loud, rude comments made by Saturday Night Live’s Drunk Uncle at a party – that the only reason he was in a Cup ride was precisely because he was part of the royal Childress racing family.
Dillon was asked how he persevered through it all.
“I attribute that to my family,” he said. “From the very beginning, my grandfather has challenged us with everything. He’s a true hero, starting with nothing, and making RCR into what it is today.
‘He pushed me and my brother to go on hunting trips that I don’t think most people would go on. So the toughness has always been there. It came from him and my dad and my mom, all my family members.
“Now to be able to deliver a number that is legendary and has stats that are untouchable, just to add to those numbers is something that him and his best friend were able to create. It’s very special.”
For those who still don’t, can’t or aren’t willing to understand the fact that makes this a cool NASCAR story, well, Dillon said he knows they’re out there. But he prefers to offer a tip of his race helmet to all those fans who stuck with him through the years, the ones who actually supported him at least in part because he was driving the No. 3 – as opposed to ripping him for it.
“This is for all those fans that have supported it, too, ’cause there’s always haters out there,” Dillon said. “But there’s a lot of support, too. There’s a great support system. To deliver this to them, the people that are proud to see that No. 3 out on the track, it feels amazing.”
His old-school grandfather saw what was happening on social media earlier, too, but had to remove himself from that potentially explosive equation.
“I was on Twitter for a while,” Childress said. “I had to get off of it because I wanted to invite (the haters) down to the Wal‑Mart parking lot.”
That explains it all pretty well.