It was October 15, 2000, when fans got to see its greatest driver to ever strap on a helmet go to victory lane at Talladega. He overcame half the field in mere laps to get to the front of the field.
It was just over four months later that NASCAR saw that same driver finish 199 of 200 laps in the Daytona 500. He never finished the final lap, because his race was cut short in the final corner. Ultimately, that corner also cut short his life.
That was the last time the No. 3 was ever on a Cup race track. Richard Childress Racing lost it’ leader, and NASCAR lost its Intimidator. Dale Earnhardt meant everything to the sport, and now the sport had to find a way to press forward, minus the man that represented so many of the fans, and the teams. Childress stripped the car of the number, reversed the colors, and said he wasn’t retiring the number, but wasn’t planning on running it again.
With the exception of three races between 2002 and 2009, that number hardly saw any NASCAR competition. But then, Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, entered the Camping World Truck Series, and with it he carried that number. The same style that Earnhardt ran, he used in his Late Model series, and carried with him to NASCAR. He then kept it with his Xfinity Series career.
But, the time then arrived for him to come to Cup. The entire time, the questions lingered of what Dillon was to do. Fans know the number three represents Earnhardt, it’s all they ever knew of him. Six of his seven championships came with that number.
So, what does Childress do?
He knows that Dillon has always ran that number, and even though it’s the number Earnhardt used the entire time with Childress, it ultimately is owned by the team. So, Childress decided it was time…the No. 3 was back. It wasn’t an Earnhardt-style scheme on the new car. It wasn’t black with silver, but black and white, with a red number.
On Sunday, in NASCAR’s longest race, Dillon found himself in position to capture a solid finish. But, as fuel cells ran dry, he found himself in charge of his own destiny. On lap 399, he captured the lead. When he took the white flag, he was saving fuel still, just to push it to the end.
It was just enough, as he crossed the line just as his engine began to sputter, but it was enough to capture his first win in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup competition. It also meant for the first time in nearly 17 years, the number that the Earnhardt-Childress combination made famous for so long was back in victory lane.
Memorial Day weekend is about honoring the heroes that sacrificed everything to maintain the freedoms of America. In a way, Dillon also is honoring the hero of NASCAR, because he also understands what that number means to fans. The number three will always represent Earnhardt, but on Sunday, it was Dillon’s turn to bring it home number one.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch
STAGE 2 WINNER: Martin Truex Jr.
STAGE 3 WINNER: Denny Hamlin
RESULTS: 1-Dillon 2-Kyle Busch 3-Truex Jr. 4-Kenseth 5-Hamlin 6-Kurt Busch 7-Jones 8-Harvick 9-Newman 10-Earnhardt Jr.
NOTABLE FINISHES: 15-Stenhouse Jr. 17-Johnson 21-Logano 33-Larson 39-Keselowski
CAUTIONS: 9 for 53 laps. Lap 21-27 (#2, 24 Incident-FS/ Competition); 102-107 (Stage 1 Conclusion); 143-153 (#32 Incident-T1 [Red Flag 1 Hr 39 Mins, 56 Secs.]); 176-179 (#10 Incident-T3); 202-206 (Stage 2 Conclusion); 247-252 (Fluid On The Track From #13); 293-297 (#42 Incident-T2); 302-306 (Stage 3 Conclusion); 330-333 (#10 Incident-T3).
LEAD CHANGES: 23 among 10 drivers. K. Harvick 1; Kyle Busch 2-23; K. Harvick 24-64; Kyle Busch 65-66; J. Johnson 67; D. Patrick 68-74; M. Truex Jr. 75-89; Kyle Busch 90-102; M. Truex Jr. 103; K. Harvick 104-106; M. Truex Jr. 107-176; P. Menard 177-178; M. Truex Jr. 179-248; J. Johnson 249-252; M. Truex Jr. 253-294; R. Stenhouse Jr. 295-296; D. Hamlin 297-306; Kyle Busch 307-329; M. Truex Jr. 330; Kyle Busch 331-333; M. Truex Jr. 334-367; Kurt Busch 368; J. Johnson 369-398; A. Dillon 399-400.
TIME OF RACE: 4 Hrs, 19 Mins, 22 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 138.800 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.835 Seconds
POINT STANDINGS (Points/Behind Leader [Playoff Points]): 1. Truex Jr, 491 ; 2. Larson, -5 ; 3. Keselowski, -82 ; 4. Harvick, -103 ; 5. Kyle Busch, -105 ; 6. McMurray, -106; 7. Elliott, -129 ; 8. Johnson, -132 ; 9. Bowyer, -148; 10. Logano, -155 ; 11. Hamlin, -159 ; 12. Blaney, -183 ; 13. Stenhouse Jr, -193 ; 14. Kurt Busch, -201 ; 15. Kenseth, -203 ; 16. Bayne, -220. PLAYOFF ELIGIBLE: Newman, -225 , Dillon, -253