Austin Dillon in the No. 3: A successor to, not a replacement for Dale Earnhardt

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The late Dale Earnhardt wrote the book on driving the No. 3.

Austin Dillon begins writing the sequel in Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500.

For 13 years, NASCAR fans vigorously debated the merits of the No. 3. Loyal Earnhardt fans felt his memory and legacy would best be remembered by never racing that number again, an everlasting memorial to what Earnhardt meant to them and the sport.

Others felt that if the No. 43 of NASCAR’s winningest driver, Richard Petty, wasn’t retired, than the No. 3 shouldn’t be either. To them, it was just a number.

As Dillon began his racing career in his teens, the No. 3 was the number he chose to adorn the side of every vehicle he would race across several different racing series, from go-karts to legend cars to the K&N Pro Series East, and ultimately to winning championships in the Camping World Trucks Series and the Nationwide Series.

Not only was it an homage to Earnhardt, it was also an homage to his grandfather, Richard Childress. Dillon saw the sadness and grief the man he called “Pop Pop” went through for days, weeks and years after Earnhardt died in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Grief is supposed to lessen in time, but Childress was so close to Earnhardt that even 10 years later, during the 2011 NASCAR Media Tour, RC still broke up emotionally when asked about The Intimidator.

Earnhardt was more than just a driver or employee to Childress. He was more than a guy who won six of his seven Sprint Cup championships while racing under the RCR banner.

Rather, Earnhardt was kin to Childress, even if there wasn’t a direct blood connection. The two men raced, hunted, fished, hung out … hell, call them what they were: best friends through and through.

When Earnhardt died, a bit of Childress died. Scratch that – a lot of Childress died. It was as if he lost the combination of a brother and son. There was even a point early on after Earnhardt died that Childress questioned whether he should continue in racing.

Austin, Richard’s first grandchild, had a front-row seat to what his Pop Pop went through. Perhaps he was just being an impressionable kid, but Dillon wanted to do whatever he could to help Childress get over his grief, to rekindle his love and excitement of the sport, to bring back that famous Childress smile.

Dillon chose the one thing that he hoped could reignite and reinvigorate Childress’ spirit – not to mention continue the next generation of what has become a family business.

Namely, racing.

Dillon was a gifted prep athlete in a variety of other sports who probably could have played any sport he wanted in college. Maybe even make it to the pros.

But he chose to become a racer.

And now, seven years after he first climbed into a K&N car, Dillon is at the pinnacle of what he’s dreamed about for most of his 23 years:

To race in NASCAR’s premier series for his grandfather.

You couldn’t write a better script: Dillon isn’t just bringing back the No. 3 for the first time in 13 years, he’ll lead the pack to the green flag for Sunday’s Great American Race as its pole sitter.

The Earnhardt legacy will essentially come full-circle when the race starts. It’s likely that most of the sell-out crowd at Daytona International Speedway will not only applaud Dillon when he crosses the start-finish line to start the race, they’ll also likely stand and hold up three fingers at the third lap unfolds as a tribute to Earnhardt – hopefully with Dillon still in the lead.

It’ll be the final passing of the torch, the changing of the guard.

Whether you’re a fan of the No. 3 coming back or not, Dillon has gone to great pain and effort to honor Earnhardt’s memory in the best way possible, while at the same time very subtly making folks aware there’s a new driver in the legendary numbered car.

There’s been no pomposity on Dillon’s part that the No. 3 is now “his” number.

“I’m not a kid that says, ‘Hey, this is what I want, this is what I’m going to get,'” Dillon said. “I’ve never been that way. Hopefully I’m never portrayed that way.”

There’s been no attempt by Dillon to say he’s going to fill Earnhardt’s shoes.

And there’s been absolutely no reference whatsoever that Dillon will ever be as good as Earnhardt.

Dillon has quickly become known in the NASCAR world as a young man who is very respectful to everyone he comes into contact with. He welcomes contact with fans, constantly says “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am,” and is about as sincere as they come.

He obviously was raised right by his mother and father, and of course, his Pop Pop.

“I’m a very respectful person and look to the history of the sport,” Dillon said with significant humility. “I feel fortunate I’m getting this opportunity.”

Dillon and his grandfather both know they’re going out on a big limb by not only bringing the No. 3 back, but also having Austin drive what so many consider “Dale’s car.” It would likely have been much simpler to come into the Sprint Cup series with another number.

Dillon knows that there will likely be more eyes upon him – especially in Sunday’s race – than on any other driver since Earhardt died.

He also knows that he wants to win lots of races and championships over the next 20-plus years. He never has been or ever will be Earnhardt, but you can’t fault Dillon if he wants to aspire to be the kind of driver The Intimidator was.

So for those of you who feel it’s sacrilegious that Dillon is going to be racing “Dale’s number,” consider this: other than one of Earnhardt’s own children or grandchildren, would you rather see Dillon in the No. 3, someone who was essentially part of Earnhardt’s extended family, or would you rather see someone who has no clue what that number and Earnhardt’s legacy means?

“I feel like hopefully we can win them over as time goes on,” Dillon said. “That’s all you can do.

“The legend of Dale has lived on for a long time and is going to continue to live on forever. Dale Earnhardt is not just famous because of the number. He is Dale Earnhardt. He was a hero in everybody’s mind, including myself.

“… We’re trying to continue the legacy of the No. 3.  I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IMSA: Sebring Day 2 of two-day test notebook

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Testing across several IMSA sanctioned series continued at Sebring International Raceway on Tuesday as preparations continue for next month’s events during the weekend of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Below are highlights from Day 2 of testing around the 3.74-mile road course.

Eurosport Racing Continues Work with Mazda Prototype Challenge Chassis

Teams in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda championship completed their second day of testing on Tuesday. Among them, Eurosport Racing continued their work with the only Mazda Prototype Challenge (MPC) entries in the field, in the hands of drivers Dr. Tim George (in the No. 24 entry) and Jon Brownson (in the No. 34).

“Right now, I’m driving by myself so we’re trying to make the car comfortable enough to last an hour and 45 minutes with just me in the car,” George said of their preparation efforts. “We’re trying to set up the car where it’s quick, yet it and can last, both the car and for me to make sure we don’t tire out, get fatigued and make mistakes.”

The 1 hour 45 minute window that George referenced represents the race times for the 2018 season, up considerably from last year’s sprint format that featured a pair of 45-minute races across a race weekend.

Though that change represents a drastic shift in driving philosophy, it is one that George welcomes.

“The new rules for the endurance races are great, I enjoy it a lot,” said George. “It gives you a chance to think through things differently with strategy. It also gives you a chance if you blow it…in a sprint race if you make a mistake you don’t get a chance to come back.”

Florida Drivers in Continental Tire Challenge Eager for Hometown Race at Sebring

A strong contingent of drivers from Florida are represented in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, and next month’s 12 Hours of Sebring weekend will see them compete on home soil.

“I grew up in Tallahassee and I live in Orlando now, so Sebring has been my home track since day one,” said Paul Holton, driver of the No. 76 Compass Racing McLaren GT4, which finished 14th at the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve spent a lot of time down here and really enjoy the place. It’s a nice, quaint little town not far from Orlando so it’s a quick, easy drive down for me.”

Fellow Floridian Ramin Abdolvahabi, a native of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and driver of the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage, revealed that, even though Sebring is only two hours from his hometown, this week’s test was his first time at the track in two years.

“I haven’t been here for two years, so coming back is like coming home,” he said. “It’s a fantastic track and it’s one of the iconic tracks in the world so being at Sebring – a small town, my hometown, welcoming – it’s fantastic. I went on the track a couple of times yesterday and it’s just like wearing an old shoe, it just fits and it’s fantastic. Hopefully, the race will go well and the weather will hold, so anyone who’s out there, come and see us!”

Frank Raso Trades in Airplanes for Porsches at Sebring

Several IMSA drivers boast “day jobs” outside of their racing gigs. Among them, Frank Raso’s work falls outside of ordinary jobs like doctor or lawyer. Rather, Raso flies airplanes for a living.

“I’m an airline pilot for a major airline,” said Raso, who tested the No. 10 Topp Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car at Sebring. “I’ve been flying for almost 30 years, and it’s allowed me, with all my time off and things like that to do this and fall back into racing again. I messed with it a little bit when I was younger, but it was, of course, expensive, so I got away from it for a while. I decided I wanted to get back into it in kind of my last couple of years before I get too old.”

Raso explained that the skills he practices while flying planes are more than transferable to his driving duties in a Porsche GT3 Cup car.

“Flying an airliner or flying any airplane, we have checklists, but everything is kind of done in order. It’s almost in a robot fashion type of a thing where you do this, you do this, you do this and you have to make sure you hit all your marks and fly the airplane with precision.

“So, when you get in these Cup cars, with no anti-lock brakes, no traction control, and no driver assist items, you have to make sure you hit your marks, when you’re accelerating, when you’re turning in. You have to be alert. It keeps your wits about you. The car can step out at any time. They’re a very difficult car to drive, but they’re a lot of fun.”
The 54-year-old Raso posted a best finish of fourth, on four separate occasions, in a part-time schedule during the 2017 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama season as a competitor in the Gold Cup class.
Newcomers Get Taste of Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge
A number of new drivers got to sample Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge cars during the two days of testing at Sebring. Among them was amateur racer Scott Welham, who got his first taste of professional racing during the two-day outing at Sebring.
And he had a strong support system backing him up in the Kelly-Moss Road and Race team, the defending Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge champions with driver Jake Eidson.
“Here, you’ve got somebody that actually does coaching, data acquisition, track management – these are all separate people – plant manager, owner, a car-setup guy, you’ve got someone that bills you – which isn’t always a good thing, but you know, you just have that huge, huge support group that enables you to focus on driving,” Welham said of the team’s influence on his development over the two days.
IMSA’s next visit to Sebring will be for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring on March 17.