DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It is the number to watch.

The 3. And it won't be hard to find.

It will be at the front when the field races to the green flag at the Daytona 500 on Sunday, carrying a vision of the driver who remains perhaps the sport's most popular of all time -- Dale Earnhardt.

The 3 car has not run in a Sprint Cup race at Daytona since January 2001, when it slammed into the wall with Earnhardt at the wheel and resulted in his death.

But Sunday, the return of the 3 will represent a new beginning for the owner of the number, Richard Childress, and his grandson, the driver, rookie Austin Dillon.

"You know, the 3 is special to all of us -- the family, the Earnhardt family, to every one of us," Childress said. "But I think it's special because Austin, our family, is in the car. You know, the emotions will fly if the 3 rolls in there on Sunday. I won't hold it back. I promise."

The drivers at Daytona understand what the 3 means to fans of the sport. Earnhardt won six championships in the 3 car for Richard Childress Racing, earning a reputation as "The Intimidator" and then "The Man in Black" after the car took on a black paint scheme in 1988 with Goodwrench and Budweiser on the hood.

Dillon's car is sponsored by Dow and its white diamond. But the 3 -- driven by Childress himself for three years in the 1970s -- is as big as ever on the roof and doors.

If the 3 is back because Childress thinks it can win, he might be right. Dillon, 23, proved deserving by winning championships in the Truck and Nationwide series (running the number in both) before his grandfather gave him the full-time ride in it for Sprint Cup this year.

And last weekend, with the stock-car world watching, Dillon put the 3 and its Earnhardt-Childress Racing engine atop the speed chart in qualifying.

"You've got to have those blinders on because that's what it's going to take," Dillon said. "You want to perform with the No. 3, and everybody wants to see it perform."

  • Regan Smith edged Brad Keselowski to win the Nationwide Series opener. Smith won by just 0.013 seconds. It was the 300th victory for the Hendrick Motorsports engine shop. Trevor Bayne was third, followed by Kyle Busch, winner of Friday's Truck Series race.

  • NASCAR said it's looking at potentially limiting the number of second- and third-tier events Sprint Cup regulars can run during the season.

  • Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte, a pair of Cup champions, are among the first-year eligible nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Five inductees will be elected by the Hall of Fame voting panel. Results will be announced May 21.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.