Austin Dillon is only 23 years old, but he loves old westerns and is a huge fan of the late, great John Wayne.
This is a good thing because the NASCAR rookie is going to need some of the Duke’s true grit this Sunday when he sits on the pole at the Daytona 500, driving a car with a number on the side that should have been permanently retired 14 years ago on the day Dale Earnhardt died.
The slanted No. 3 made famous by Earnhardt is the most sacred sports number of our generation and is wrongfully making its return to Cup racing this year on the side of the Chevy driven by Dillon, whose grandfather is Richard Childress — the renowned car owner and Earnhardt’s buddy and benefactor. Childress is the one who owns the number on the “3” car once driven by Earnhardt and now controversially and erringly given to his grandson.
I feel bad for Austin Dillon, a personable, charismatic and talented young driver who now is inexorably and inexcusably linked to Earnhardt. Unfortunately, there will likely be many emotional Earnhardt fans who boo Dillon during Sunday’s Daytona 500, and Dillon says he understands those who disagree with Childress putting him in the No. 3 car.
“I understand the emotion of everybody; everybody has their opinions and I respect that,” Dillon told me Tuesday during an interview on our “Open Mike” radio show. “But I’m comfortable with what I’m doing and that’s what matters, I guess. … It’s definitely pressure, but the good thing about it is that it drives you to be competitive and perform. Everybody wants to see (the No. 3) perform.”
Actually, I think most NASCAR fans would prefer not to see the No. 3 perform — ever again. Even though NASCAR doesn’t retire numbers, an exception should have been made for Earnhardt. NASCAR and Childress should have come to some sort of agreement — financial or otherwise — so that the No. 3 would always belong to “The Intimidator” and nobody else.
I know, I know — the No. 3 belonged to Childress before it belonged to Earnhardt. A former racer himself and a self-made man, Childress ran nearly 300 races before he stepped out of the No. 3 car and hired a young Earnhardt to take his place. But it was Earnhardt who made the black No. 3 iconic by winning six championships and becoming the greatest cult figure NASCAR has ever known before dying on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
And this is why his number is the most cherished of any number in modern sports history. Think about it: Has there ever been an instance in major American sports where the greatest athlete of that sport has died in the arena in the final stages of his sport’s biggest event? Do you think if Tom Brady or Peyton Manning died in the final two minutes of the Super Bowl anybody would ever wear their numbers again?
“We didn’t go into this without thinking about it,” Dillon says. “We had a lot of different people we wanted to talk to before we went about bringing back the No. 3. It was a long process. My grandfather and I sat down, talked about it and discussed bringing it back in a classy way and adding to the legacy of the No. 3. There is no other Dale Earnhardt and there never will be another Dale Earnhardt.”
Just like there will never be another John Wayne.
In fact, Dale was the closest thing in sports we’ve ever seen to the Duke. Earnhardt was indeed NASCAR’s John Wayne, riding a 3,000-pound steel stallion, spurs sparkling, guns glinting, kicking up grass and taking names until the day he died.
“My favorite John Wayne quote,” Dillon says, “is when he said, ‘Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.’ ”
Good luck, kid.
You’ll need it when you saddle up that No. 3 on Sunday.
It’s one thing to be a John Wayne fan.
It’s quite another to sit on John Wayne’s horse while some bad hombres are trying to gun you down.