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Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 returns with Austin Dillon at the wheel

Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 DOW

Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 DOW Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 15, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Fla. Credit: Getty Images / Robert Laberge

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Every bit as iconic as Babe Ruth's No. 3 is to baseball and the Yankees, so is the No. 3 to NASCAR, the legacy of Dale Earnhardt and team owner Richard Childress.

Retired from Sprint Cup competition since Earnhardt's death at the conclusion of the 2001 Daytona 500, the No. 3 returns to Sprint Cup competition at that very track this week with Childress' grandson, Austin Dillon, at the wheel.

"It's going to be really neat to see it out there," says Childress, with whom Earnhardt combined for six of his seven NASCAR championships. "It will be special for all of us."

Three weeks ago, Childress was presented with a commemorative rendition of the car at Daytona by noted NASCAR artist Sam Bass. The painting didn't look quite the same as the black-and-silver Goodwrench Chevrolet made famous by Earnhardt in his "Intimidator" days. For one thing, Dow Chemical will be the sponsor on the hood.

For another, the car's chances of taking the checkered flag at Daytona appear remote though not entirely microscopic. Dillon is a rookie, and even though Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 as a rookie in 2011 and Danica Patrick earned her only pole in her rookie season at Daytona last year, the task is formidable.

Ultimately, the return of the No. 3 has been part of Childress' vision -- part of a plan he and Earnhardt hatched more than a year before the Hall of Fame driver's death.

"That decision was made 14 years ago when Dale and I sat in an old car in the rain one day, talking about his retirement," Childress recalls. "We talked about what he was going to do, how he wanted to help me, and how to put a driver in the No. 3 that could win championships. It was not in the plans to put anyone in the car until the right person was there."

The right person could have been Dale Earnhardt Jr., who now drives for Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt Jr. did drive a No. 3 Wrangler paint-schemed car to a Nationwide Series victory at Daytona in July 2010 but says that he was never truly interested in inheriting No. 3, calling it "too big of a bite to chew."

"I don't know what my emotions will be," says Earnhardt Jr. of racing fender-to-fender against Dillon and the No. 3. "I did see the car in testing. It's kind of neat in a way. There's some sadness there, too. But I'm genuinely happy for Austin because he and I have become pretty good friends and Richard is genuinely thrilled."

"When you look at how many different ways (the number) could have come back, I couldn't imagine a better scenario or - if I can be selfish for a minute -- one that I would have been more comfortable with."

Austin Dillon expects the scrutiny won't go away any time soon.

"I don't think you can get tired of it," he says. "All the fans care about the No. 3 and I can talk about it all day. I want to be able to remember Dale, too. I hope to be able to create more memories and talk about winning championships."

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