Childress: 2000 conversation with Earnhardt played role about No. 3

Team owner Richard Childress’ decision to run the No. 3 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with grandson Austin Dillon behind the wheel wasn’t made lightly.

And as Childress reiterated Tuesday during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, the decision wasn’t made recently either.

In fact, when Childress and seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt discussed the prospect of Earnhardt’s retirement in 2000, the future of the No. 3 Chevy was part of the conversation.

“That decision was actually made 14 years ago, when Dale and I were talking about his retirement, what he wanted to do when he retired, how he wanted to help me with the 3 and the team to go out and put a driver in it that could go out and win championships and win races,” Childress said.

“It was not in the plans at all to put anybody in the car until the right person was there. Yeah, if Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. had wanted to do it, or Kelley Earnhardt, or Kerry or now Jeffrey, whoever — it would be an Earnhardt or one of my family who would get in that 3 car.

“But that decision was made 14 years ago, as me and him sat in an old car there in the rain one day, talking about his retirement.”

Earnhardt never got the chance to retire on his own terms. In February 2001, he lost his life in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500, and the No. 3 has been absent from the Sprint Cup series since.

Dillon has run the number in the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, winning a championship in each, but its return to NASCAR’s foremost series is an event of special significance — and of no small controversy in some quarters of “Earnhardt Nation.”

The debate aside, however, Childress already looks forward to the day the No. 3 makes its competitive return.

“That decision to bring the 3 back — it’s going to be really neat to see it out there that morning (at Daytona) when I walk out there,” Childress said.