One of the most iconic numbers in NASCAR  is back in the big leagues as Richard Childress Racing announced Wednesday that Austin Dillon will drive the No. 3 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2014.
Dillon, last season's champion in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, will pilot the number made famous by seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt. The No. 3 had been out of use in NASCAR's premier division since Earnhardt's death in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
The offseason move, announced at Charlotte Motor Speedway during Wednesday's testing session, falls under the heading of 'worst-kept secret' coming to light, with team owner Childress being purposely coy in recent months about returning the car number to Sprint Cup competition with his grandson at the wheel. Earnhardt won six of his titles in RCR's No. 3, and the number still holds a hallowed place among fans.
At the final race weekend of the year, Dillon openly talked about the significance of the number even as he closed in on his second NASCAR national series crown.
"I feel the pressure of the number because I want to make it run well for the fans, keep it up front," Dillon said. "It's a very special number to our family. ... Having the opportunity, the equipment, that stuff is always going to be with me from the very beginning. The number is more for me, putting pressure on myself. I like doing that. It's something that pushes me. Not everybody can say they have a number that pushes them, and I can, so that's nice."
Dillon, 23, has driven the No. 3 in winning Nationwide (2013) and Camping World Truck Series (2011) titles. He has made 13 Sprint Cup starts -- including 11 in 2013 -- without a top-10 finish, but will enter the series for his first full-time season in 2014.
The No. 3 has been driven to victory 97 times in NASCAR's premier series, ranking it third on the all-time list behind No. 11 (203 wins) and No. 43 (198 wins). Childress adopted the number midway through his career as independent driver/owner in tribute to NASCAR Hall of Famer and fellow North Carolinian Junior Johnson. He kept the number when he hung up his driving gloves in 1981, shifting solely to team ownership.
After teaming up briefly in the 1981 season, Earnhardt re-established his connection with Childress in 1984, setting the stage for one of the most successful partnerships in NASCAR history. Earnhardt scored all but nine of his 76 career victories at the Cup level driving Childress' No. 3, first in blue-and-yellow Wrangler Jeans livery and starting in 1988, in the black GM Goodwrench paint scheme with silver trim that would define one of the most recognizable and feared cars in stock-car racing.
When Earnhardt died in the 2001 season opener, Childress' team returned to the track the following week with Kevin Harvick as his replacement in a white car with a black number 29. Harvick, who will join Stewart-Haas Racing next season, drove for RCR for 13 years in the No. 29 Chevrolet, but the car always competed with a small No. 3 decal in tribute to Earnhardt's legacy with the team.