- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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WELCOME, N.C. -- Austin Dillon was playing basketball behind his house with his younger brother Ty and a few friends when his mother and a friend approached in tears.
There was a hug.
And then there was the news: Dale Earnhardt was dead.
Dillon was 10 at the time. He was into basketball and baseball, with racing far down his list of things he wanted to do. And while Earnhardt was the driver he idolized, he wasn't aware of what "The Intimidator" meant to the world at the time.
"You didn't know why everybody was upset," Dillon recalled. "You knew they lost a hero, but you thought he'd come back."
Now racing is Dillon's life. On Friday, the anniversary of Earnhardt's Feb. 18, 2001, death, he will drive a black No. 3 in the Camping World Truck Series at Daytona International Speedway.
It's not so much a tribute to a man Dillon calls his hero as much as it is his way of carrying on the family tradition that his grandfather, Richard Childress, began long before Earnhardt took over that number.
"I'm sure it'll be emotional for a lot of guys that were on that team," Dillon said. "There'll be a lot of significance running on that day. My part of it will just be winning for the fun of it, to make my grandfather proud for all the heartaches."
Unlike Kevin Harvick, who wanted no part of a black car or the No. 3 after replacing Earnhardt in 2001, Dillon relishes the opportunity to drive under that number and color. He has fun with it.
"I like the challenge it brings," Dillon said between classes at High Point University, where he is majoring in communications. "I enjoy it because it's been in the family so long. It makes you want to perform for other people. I love driving that 3. It's something I've driven my entire career."
It's a number Dillon has worn, too, from baseball to basketball to soccer. When he started driving go-karts his always was decaled like Earnhardt's Goodwrench 3 car.
So it seemed only natural when Dillon began to pursue a career in racing at the age of 15 that he asked his grandfather if he could run the 3.
There was no hesitation by Childress.
"He's a great grandfather," Dillon said with a laugh. "It'd be tough to turn down his grandson. He liked the idea."
And Dillon, no disrespect to Earnhardt, likes being the one with the number on his car.
"Everybody seems to be having a good time with it now and enjoys seeing it on the track," he said. "It brings a different mentality to me. Most numbers are just a number. But that number, I see people look up to more than others."
Before last season, the No. 3 had been on the track in only three events in NASCAR's top three series since the day Earnhardt was killed. Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove a blue version of it in a 2002 Nationwide Series race and Dillon drove a black 3 in two truck races in 2009.
But last season Dillon drove the number in 25 Truck races, taking it to Victory Lane at Iowa and Las Vegas and finishing fifth in points. Dale Jr. took a blue and yellow Wrangler No. 3 honoring his father to Victory Lane in the July Nationwide Series Daytona race.
Judging by responses to both drivers in the 3, there appears to be a growing comfort among fans with that number on the track again, particularly and deservedly with a member of Childress' family behind the wheel. Perhaps one day Childress will put aside his pledge to keep the number out of the Sprint Cup series.
Perhaps Dillon will be the one to break the barrier.
The biggest thing I remember [about Dale Earnhardt] was how playful he was and all the time joking. Being a little kid, he messed with you all the time. I was pretty young, but he was the hero.
”-- Austin Dillon
"If it's a race car, I like having it on the car," said Dillon, who will drive the No. 3 full time in the Truck Series this year and No. 33 in four Nationwide Series races for Kevin Harvick Inc.
There are some who believe the black 3 doesn't belong on the track in any series, that it shows disrespect to the seven-time champion. It's not fair to put that burden on Dillon, who respected Earnhardt as much as anybody even though his memories of him were short-lived.
But as Dillon puts it so well, you don't have to grow up in the same era with somebody to idolize him.
"One of my biggest heroes [in the movies] is John Wayne," said Dillon, who wasn't born when Wayne made his last movie in 1976.
Dillon actually was in Victory Lane for one of Earnhardt's biggest memories, the 1998 Daytona 500 that ended 20 years of frustration of trying to win NASCAR's biggest race.
"The biggest thing I remember was how playful he was and all the time joking," Dillon said. "Being a little kid, he messed with you all the time. I was pretty young, but he was the hero."
Dillon had selfish reasons for wanting Earnhardt to win in those days.
"We had pizza night every time he won," he said.
Ah, the memories of a kid.
Dillon has many other Earnhardt memories, although not the ones most outside the family do. He remembers doing a commercial with Earnhardt, daughter Taylor Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon selling diecast cars.
"Taylor and I were both arguing over who was going to get the 3 car to play with," Dillon recalled. "Dale ended up giving Taylor the 24 and me the 3."
All these things may creep into Dillon's mind as he drives the black 3 around Daytona on Friday. If he has his way he'll drive the car into Victory Lane and share the moment with his grandfather.
Think that would bring a tear or two?
"Seeing how close everybody is, just knowing how that had to be [when Earnhardt died] and the feelings I remember from seeing my family when it happened, I'm sure it'll be emotional," Dillon said. "Seeing my grandfather's reaction would mean the most to me.
"I don't think I'll get emotional, but if he gets tore up, I would probably do the same."
A few others might as well.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.