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THE BOY is 11 years old. He's sitting in his living room in Lewisville, N.C., his face close to the television screen, watching his hero race in the 2001 Daytona 500. The boy is wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the number 3 as he sees Dale Earnhardt thunder out of Turn 3 in third place on the last lap of the race. The boy cheers for the Intimidator, the seven-time NASCAR champion, to make one final charge to the front. Whenever Earnhardt wins, the boy's family celebrates with a pizza dinner—and the boy loves pizza.

The boy knows Earnhardt. Three years earlier the boy was with his younger brother at a playground in the infield of Daytona International Speedway when their mother came rushing toward them. Only three laps remained in the 500, and Earnhardt, driving that famous black number 3 Chevy owned by the boy's grandfather, Richard Childress, was speeding toward the checkered flag. The boy's dad, Mike Dillon, had driven Earnhardt's Chevy at a Daytona test session just a month earlier, prepping the car for the Great American Race, and he had told his sons that Earnhardt could win it that year. The brothers, at their mother's urging, jumped on a golf cart and were whisked to Victory Lane. The boy hugged Earnhardt, who had just won his first and only Daytona 500, and smiled for pictures with the living legend—and dreamed of one day becoming a race car driver like him.

Three years later, in his living room, the boy sees the last-lap crash, sees number 3 slam into the Turn 4 wall. Austin Dillon is told by his mother to go to the family barn, where for an hour he plays basketball with his little brother, Ty. Then their mother approaches, tears on her face. Dale is now in heaven, she says. Later that night around 100 team employees gather at the Dillons' house, across the street from the Childress home. They cry. They pray. Austin doesn't fully grasp what has happened, but the sight of so much sadness scares him. It will haunt his dreams.

In Daytona Beach, 550 miles away, Childress walks out of Halifax Medical Center, where a maroon hearse sits parked close to the ER. In a cracking, barely audible voice, he tells his wife, Judy, "I'm done racing. I'm through. We're selling everything tomorrow."

The next day Childress stands alone on a dock outside the Daytona Beach house of Bill France Jr., the chairman of NASCAR. Listening to the waves of the Atlantic lap against the shoreline, Childress closes his eyes. Memories of his best friend roll through his mind. Only a few months earlier Childress narrowly escaped death while hunting elk with Earnhardt in the mountains of northern New Mexico. A horse Earnhardt was walking along an icy path reared up and knocked Childress into a ravine. He suffered cracked ribs and cuts to his head but had been only inches away from tumbling deeper, onto a bed of rocks. That night, beside a fire, reflecting on the tightrope of life, Earnhardt told his friend of 25 years, "If I ever die, you have to keep racing."

Now, on the dock, Childress remembers Earnhardt's words. You have to keep racing. He changes his mind. He rebrands Earnhardt's car with the number 29 (the available NASCAR number closest to 3), puts an unknown driver named Kevin Harvick in the seat and, five days later, returns to the track in Rockingham, N.C.

But Childress's spirit for racing is gone. From one season to the next he feels hollow. This sense of emptiness continues for years—until, at last, the boy becomes a young man.

HERE COMES the 23-year-old rookie, his brown eyes bright with the excitement of seeing things for the first time. He has climbed out of his number 3 Chevy, which he parked in the Daytona garage, and is walking through the infield. It's a cold January day, and Austin Dillon has just run a few laps, pacing the field in a test session at which 40 Sprint Cup drivers are fine-tuning their cars for Sunday's 56th running of the Daytona 500. Dillon, trailed by autograph seekers clad in black Earnhardt jackets and shirts, glances at the scoring pylon sprouting from the infield: For the first time in 13 years in the Cup series, the number 3 is there—and it's at the top.

It was there again last Sunday, after Dillon grabbed the pole for the 500. That feat makes him a favorite in the 2014 Sprint Cup season opener. He'll go wheel-to-wheel with six-time NASCAR champion and defending 500 winner Jimmie Johnson. He'll duel with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has a combined seven career victories on the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. And he'll try to ride the aerodynamic draft and outwit Tony Stewart, a four-time winner at Daytona (though never in the 500) who is returning from the broken right fibula and tibia that forced him to miss the final 15 races of last season.

But Dillon won't just be racing 42 other drivers on Sunday; he'll also be chasing the ghost of Earnhardt, the most popular driver in NASCAR history, a man whose myth remains so vibrant that trailers selling merchandise with his likeness still attract long lines of fans at every race. For 13 years NASCAR has waited for a driver to fill the void left by Earnhardt, a blue-jeans-wearing, f-bomb-dropping Everyman who was worshipped by a legion of fans who got their fingernails dirty for a living. The circuit's TV ratings have plummeted nearly 50% since 2005. Of course Dillon can't be expected to be the next Earnhardt—no one in the sport is as charismatic, controversial or compelling as the Intimidator was—but 13 years later the black number 3 will finally rumble back onto the track in the Cup series, with Dillon at the wheel. When NASCAR president Mike Helton—the man who on that day in 2001 told the world, "We've lost Dale Earnhardt"—saw the number 3 on top of the Daytona speed chart, even he was choked with emotion. He thought, I like that.

No, Austin Dillon isn't just racing for himself. He also carries the hopes of a spiraling sport.

"My dad was a badass in that number 3 car, and he stood for one thing: winning," says Kelley Earnhardt Miller, 41, Dale's elder daughter. "After he died, I didn't want the number 3 to come back. But time heals. I'll get emotional when I see it, I'll probably cry, but it needs to be back out there."

Childress paid NASCAR $3,000 per year to retain the number after Earnhardt's death, waiting for the right driver at the right moment to bring it back. He offered it to Dale Jr., who turned it down, not wanting to be freighted with its burdens and expectations. "I thought that would be a bit too big of a bite to chew for me," Earnhardt says. But NASCAR's most popular driver has given Dillon his blessing. He treats Dillon like a nephew and has promised to help him deal with the enormous fan base clamoring to see the number 3—painted in the familiar slanted style that adorns the arms, legs, backs and even heads of thousands of Dale Sr.'s tattooed believers—reach Victory Lane.

Dillon says he's ready. "I can handle all of it," he asserts, sitting in an office of Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, N.C., on a recent morning. "I wore the number 3 in stick-and-ball sports as a kid, and I've had it in the truck series and the Nationwide series. I'm ready for all of it."

AUSTIN DILLON was a natural—at baseball. Playing second base for a Little League all-star team in Clemmons, N.C., in 2002, he helped the squad advance to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. The 12-year-old Austin was one of the smallest kids on the roster—about 4'11" and 90 pounds—but he displayed deft hand-eye coordination at the plate and quickness in the field. His team lost all three of its games in Williamsport. Still, Austin became a star when a double play he helped turn in the Southeastern Regional became a SportsCenter highlight. "Austin was an aggressive player with quick feet, quick hands and a good sense of timing," says John Scott, the team's manager. "He was extremely determined and focused, never backing down from anything."

Scott's assessment is echoed by the scouting report on Dillon's driving ability. Austin began steering a go-kart around his yard in the Blue Ridge foothills at age eight, but he didn't get serious about motor sports until he was 15. In spring 2005, he and Ty were in Childress's luxury suite at Charlotte (then Lowe's) Motor Speedway watching a Legends car race. Several of the drivers were as young as the Dillon brothers. "They just looked like they were having so much fun," recalls Ty, now 21. "We just felt like it was time to make a commitment and stop playing other sports." Childress had frequently told his grandsons that if they ever wanted to race, he was only a phone call away. Ty dialed his grandfather from the suite. "We want to start racing," he said. "We want to get serious about it."

Within two weeks Austin was behind the wheel of a Legends machine—a replica of a 1930s American car with a motorcycle engine—and sliding around tracks across the country. He painted the number 3 on his car's side panels. Austin missed so many school days that he began to take one-on-one classes with his teachers at the private Forsyth Country Day School in Lewisville. On long road trips to tracks in Indiana, Wisconsin and Alabama, he sat for hours in the passenger seat of his father's hauler as they rode through the darkness, his head buried in a circle of light illuminating his school books. At home Mike Dillon and his boys watched countless old races, analyzing lines around tracks, discussing strategies and identifying the key decisions that winning drivers typically made. From 1995 to 2001, Mike had been a mid-pack Nationwide (then Busch) driver, never winning a race in 154 starts in the series. "I've always tried to use my failures as a driver to help my sons," says Mike, now vice president of competition at Richard Childress Racing. "Hopefully they've learned from my mistakes."

Soon after that phone call from Ty, Childress sat his grandsons down and mapped out a path to the Sprint Cup series. "They would start at the lowest level and not move up until they proved they were ready," Childress says. "Neither one has deviated from that initial plan one bit. If I didn't think Austin was ready, he wouldn't be in that number 3 car in the Daytona 500."

In 2009, Austin made his first start in the Camping World Truck Series, the NASCAR equivalent of Double A. Two years later he won the series championship. In '12 he moved up to the Nationwide Series, and last year he captured the season title on the strength of his 8.8 average finish.

His grandsons have revived Childress's love of the sport, but they've also become targets on the track. Kevin Harvick, who left RCR for Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of last season, ripped the Dillon brothers in October, saying after he was wrecked by Ty in a truck race, "They've got no respect for what they do in the sport, and they've had everything fed to them with a spoon."

Yet Ty, who will race full-time in the Nationwide Series this season, and Austin are generally well-respected in the garage. They fill their conversations with older drivers with "Yes, sir" and "No, sir." Each spring Austin plays in an invitation-only basketball league at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s North Carolina property that includes several Cup drivers. Playing point guard in the three-on-three league, the 5'9", 180-pound Austin led his team to the title last year. In fact, he may be the most naturally athletic driver in NASCAR.

"Some drivers might tell you that Austin is getting this chance because of his family connections, but man, he's earned this," says Jimmie Johnson. "He's won championships. We're going to have to be patient with him this year because he's going to make mistakes as a rookie, but he's clearly the right guy to be driving that number 3."

On Sunday afternoon at Daytona, Childress will stand next to Austin when his grandson slides into the number 3 Chevy seconds before the command to start the engines. Aglow with pride, the grandfather will lean into the cockpit and whisper seven words into Austin's ear, words he's been rehearsing for 13 years.

Be safe, my boy. Just be safe.



Last season Austin Dillon failed to win a race in the Nationwide Series, but he had the best average finish (8.8) of any driver on the circuit and beat veteran Sam Hornish Jr. by three points for the title. Dillon's success in the Triple A of NASCAR bodes well for his Sprint Cup future. Here's how the last five Nationwide champions have fared in NASCAR's highest level of competition.