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NASCAR fans applaud the return of the 3 car

Long before he became the driver who won at every level and this year brought the No. 3 car back to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, Austin Dillon was a baseball player who thought that might be his sport of choice.

He played second base for North Carolina in the 2002 Little League World Series, and though his team went 0-3, the exposure meant a lot to Dillon, who is from a famous racing family but found the attention new to him.

Baseball, though, eventually gave way to racing as Dillon gravitated toward motor sports in high school. He not only became successful in racing but also was intrigued that he always had “something to learn” by trying to navigate different types of tracks.

Starting late in racing, though unusual, might have helped him.

“My family pushed me to play other sports,” Dillon said. “I’m glad they did. I learned a lot about the team aspect of sports. I think that’s why I work pretty well with my team. Yeah, at one point in time I thought I was going to be a baseball player, but this suited me a little better, I feel like. The challenge in racing is unbelievable. I’ve never been challenged like this in my life to be successful and part of a team.”

Dillon, who will compete in the Kobalt 400 on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, is a rookie in Sprint Cup, but made news before the season began when he announced the No. 3 car was coming back. That number hadn’t been used since Dale Earnhardt, who made the digit a NASCAR icon, died in 2001 in a final-lap crash in the Daytona 500.

Dillon debuted that number on the same track in the same race two weeks ago.

“It was special,” he said. “There was so much hype and so many people around the car, it was nice to put the helmet on and go out there and do what I love to do, and that’s drive. It’s been a fun start, and I enjoyed every minute of it, really.”

He did more than just show up in the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Dillon won the pole in qualifying, then finished ninth.

“I think it’s a good way to carry momentum,” Dillon said. “The superspeedways are so crazy that there are a lot of different type of racing than what we do most of the year.”

If any driver was going to revive the No. 3 car, it is apt that Dillon is that racer.

The 23-year-old is the grandson of Childress, the team owner who was almost blood-brother close to Earnhardt, who won six of his seven Cup titles for RCR. Dillon saw his grandfather grieve, and perhaps in his own tribute, wore No. 3 in baseball and in his burgeoning racing career.

He drove that number to Victory Lane many times on his way to racking up the 2011 Camping World Truck Series championship and the Nationwide Series title last season, just the third driver to win both circuits.

Now Dillon keeps pushing forward, knowing the competition only gets more intense now that he’s at NASCAR’s top level.

“I feel like I haven’t made it,” Dillon said. “I’ve made it to the Cup series. That’s great, but we’ve got a lot to accomplish, and you’re never on top until you win championships and run up front.”

That kind of success may come. If the past is any indication, Dillon will be among the headline drivers, getting attention for far more than what number adorns the side of his car.

But it all could have been different. Dillon could have played baseball and followed that route to the pros.

Being in Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series was quite a rush and a time Dillon still cherishes.

“Staying in a dorm with a bunch of 12-year-old kids,” he said, “and running around thinking that you owned the world was pretty cool.”

■ NOTES — The Southern Nevada Racing Network was announced Wednesday. It’s a marketing effort to promote area racing events, and a tent will be set up in the midway at LVMS. Las Vegans Brendan Gaughan and Jamie Little will sign autographs there at 11:20 a.m. Friday. Gaughan drives the No. 62 RCR Chevy in Nationwide, and Little is ESPN’s pit-road reporter. Former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman will show up accompanied by showgirls at 10 a.m. Sunday. … Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy, will answer questions at LVMS’ Neon Garage at 1:30 p.m. Friday.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter @markanderson65.

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