By Matt Crossman
When Austin Dillon, who drove the No. 3 car to the pole for the Daytona 500 on Sunday, was 12, he played in a baseball tournament in Florida. The winner would go on to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
His grandfather, Richard Childress, the owner of the car Dillon drives for Richard Childress Racing, flew the team from North Carolina to Florida, so while other teams schlepped south in 12-hour bus rides, Dillon's team was on the ground by 10 a.m.
All the kids and coaches piled into a small room with eight bunk beds. Dillon's bed was directly across from one of the coaches, Mark Wylam. When Wylam had been Dillon's age, his team had played in this same South Florida tournament but lost in the championship and didn't qualify to play in Williamsport. As Dillon's team advanced through the tournament, Wylam appreciated the fact he was getting a second chance and shared that with the players.
"It's the experience you want them to take back. I was getting up early, getting to the ball field. I was paying attention to the sunrise, I was paying attention to the fire ants -- we were in South Florida. I was paying attention to coleslaw as a vegetable," Wylam says. "Austin was one of the boys who certainly wanted to hear the stories. He was interested that somebody had gone before him. That's a great thing when you think about what he's done."
It's that appreciation of what has come before him that has Dillon's smiling face on the front page of every sports section in the country today. NASCAR's history met its present on Sunday, and Dillon brought them together.
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The last time the No. 3 car drove in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, Dale Earnhardt crashed it and died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Dillon, who was 10 at the time, was playing at his family's property in North Carolina. His mother gathered him and his younger brother, Ty (who will drive in the Nationwide Series this season), to tell them what had happened.
His life, his grandfather's life, NASCAR's life, would never be the same.
Earnhardt's death shattered NASCAR, and nobody more than Childress. He and Earnhardt had won six championships together. You couldn't think of Earnhardt without thinking of the black 3 car, and you couldn't think of Earnhardt without thinking of Childress. They weren't just owner and driver. They were hunting buddies, business partners, best friends. Childress, Earnhardt and the No. 3 were as closely tied together as the Yankees, Babe Ruth and the No. 3.
With his bushy brown mustache, every man background story and hard-charging driving style, Earnhardt had dominated the sport for years. A member of the first class of NASCAR's Hall of Fame, he is generally considered one of the top three drivers of all time. His seven championships are tied with the most ever with Richard Petty. His nicknames -- The Intimidator and The Man in Black -- only hinted at the anxiety other drivers felt when they saw his black Chevy in their rear-view mirrors.
The sport didn't seem right without that car on the track. But it wouldn't have seemed right with the wrong person in it, either.
Childress has often told a story of a hunting trip that he and Earnhardt took, during which Earnhardt told Childress to carry on after he was gone. It took years before Childress was ready to do so, and even more for him to find the right person to drive the No. 3. He didn't want to replicate Earnhardt, knew he couldn't even if he wanted to, but he wanted somebody who appreciated what Earnhardt had done, both for him personally and for the sport as a whole.
As it turns out, Childress didn't have to look very far.
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When Austin Dillon was 5, his dad, Mike Dillon, now the director of competition at Richard Childress Racing, gave him a go-kart and let him ride it around a dirt track on the family property. But Austin was more interested in stick and ball sports for most of his childhood. He often badgered his coaches to let him wear the No. 3.
He didn't start racing until he was 15, extremely late in this era. He quickly moved up the ranks on lower circuits across the Southeast. He won both the rookie of the year awards and championships in the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, NASCAR's equivalent of Double A and Triple A. He drove the No. 3 in those series, in an under-the-radar preparation for this season.
He has exhibited an unusual ability to adapt his driving style, both to new cars and new circumstances. Though some drivers have criticized him for being too aggressive -- and he describes himself as aggressive, too -- he won the Nationwide Series championship last season by being patient and conservative.
All of that prepared him, sort of, for Sunday. The attention he has gotten since the return of the No. 3 was announced in December has been nonstop. But he has been answering questions about it for years and seems to handle the attention well, giving the same respectful answers every time.
He could take the questions as accusatory -- who are you to drive the No. 3? -- but he doesn't take them that way, at least in part because he knows enough about the history of the sport to understand that point of view.
"I'm not a kid who says, 'This is what I want, this is what I'm going to get,'" Dillon says. "I've never been that way. Hopefully I'm not ever portrayed that way. I'm a very respectful person and look to the history of the sport."
At least for one day, all of the questions faded as he drove that No. 3 car back onto the track that made it famous. He laid down a blistering lap of 196.019 miles per hour. That made Dillon the fifth rookie in history to win the pole in the Daytona 500.
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He's (almost certainly) the only Daytona 500 pole winner to have also played in the Little League World Series. His team won that tournament in Florida and advanced to Williamsport. The players galvanized tiny Clemmons, N.C., as the team picked up win after win after win.
"We were right on the heels of after Dale Earnhardt got killed," says Chuck DeLuca, another coach of the team. "That family had just gone through so much that year. This was a very good release, and a very good thing for that family for that entire healing process. It shook up not only Richard, but it shook up Austin and his brother Ty. Mike Dillon was very affected by it."
Dillon played second base, and in three games in Williamsport, he went 1-for-4. The team lost three straight games and was eliminated.
"Austin was a gritty kid. I'd say undersized -- maybe the puberty fairy hadn't found him," Wylam said. "He was a typical second baseman. A [Dustin] Pedroia-type, a gritty type. He wouldn't be the kid with the biggest arm, but he'd the kid with the biggest heart."
And now he's the kid with the fastest car.
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