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Minter: It Was A Three-mendous Moment

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 12 2010

Austin Dillon logged one of the more memorable Camping World Truck Series victories in some time on Sunday. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

As I sat in front of the TV and watched the Dillon brothers, Ty and Austin, turn in remarkable performances in the weekend races at Iowa Speedway, my mind wondered back to other afternoons over the years, when I’ve seen Richard Childress and his grandsons at NASCAR races.

There’s no questioning the demands on Childress’ time. But time and again I’ve seen him give the boys his undivided attention, even as his Cup cars were running – or wrecking – on the race track.

He seemed to be able to block out the racing and just be “Pop Pop” to the boys.

I remembered a night back in 2007 at 311 Speedway, the dirt track in Madison, N.C., when Austin made his Super Late Model debut, in a black Chevrolet, with the iconic “3” on the doors.

Once again, Childress was wearing the grandpa hat as much or more than the car owner one. He personally introduced his grandsons to a handful of media types who showed up for the race.

He found supportive things to say to Austin afterward. Most were deserved, as the youngster showed from the start of practice that he had the instincts to be a successful race driver.

And they all seemed proud to see the No. 3 back in action.

Childress pointed out to any who didn’t already know that that number was actually on the Cup cars he drove himself before Earnhardt came into the picture.

And he said that night that it would have to be a special circumstance for the No. 3 to return to a vehicle in a major NASCAR series.

Most of us left that dusty dirt track that night pretty sure that we’d one day see Austin running a black No. 3 in NASCAR. I don’t know that any of us imagined that in just three short years he’d be able to turn in a dominating performance like he did at Iowa, leading all but 13 laps and overpowering far more experienced drivers on multiple late-race restarts. Neither did we expect to see the younger Ty win the pole and run second in the Iowa ARCA race the night before.

Austin Dillon running the No. 3 – and winning with it – might be just the ticket for perking up fans who seem to have lost some of their interest in the sport.

It’ll never work for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to drive the 3. He’s said so himself, time and again. There are just too many issues there.

But Dillon is different.

He’s got all the qualities that draw people to the Earnhardts, and he won’t be faced with the father-son comparisons that have come when Earnhardt Jr. raced with his father’s car number.

He’s young. He’s handsome. He’s single. He’s respectful of the sport and its fans. He has deep roots in NASCAR. He loves running dirt Late Models. And he’s from that part of the world that the NASCAR talent scouts seem to often overlook – the Old South that gave us many of the stars of the early days of the sport.

Combine all that with the return of the No. 3 and you’ve got a package that could do more for NASCAR than any amount of tinkering with the Chase format or rules tweaking for races.

Dillon was asked on Monday’s NASCAR teleconference if he was up to the challenge of spending a career running the No. 3.

He basically said yes.

“I love running it,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

He also acknowledged that it comes with a good bit of expectations.

“It’s something you have to take on and take on as a challenge….

But it’s grandfather’s decision when we run it and how long we run it.”

I’d guess Pop Pop will be all for it, assuming Dillon continues to progress as a driver.

The real question for many is what Earnhardt would think. I’d say he’d be sporting that familiar grin at the thought of his car number going to a fellow North Carolina native who cut his teeth on dusty dirt tracks like 311 Speedway where Earnhardt once raced himself, and, oh by the way, is the grandson of the man he teamed with on his way to immortality.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 12 2010
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