Being on pole position for the Daytona 500 doesn’t really mean a lot. The high banking of the 2.5-mile Florida super speedway the NASCAR Sprint Cup season-opener runs on means that the stock cars run flat-out around the track. Intense pack racing is the order of the day.

So why has there been so much talk about 23-year-old Sprint Cup rookie Austin Dillon qualifying on pole for Sunday’s race? Because of the big number painted on the side of his car. The number 3. Dale Earnhardt’s number.

Until Dillon took to the track for Daytona qualifying last Sunday, a car using No. 3 hadn't run in NASCAR’s top flight since seven-time champion Earnhardt was killed in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt is one of NASCAR’s biggest heroes, revered for his no-nonsense attitude and no-compromise driving. His all-black No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was instantly recognisable.

Following Earnhardt’s death, Kevin Harvick took over the drive at RCR, and to ease pressure on the then-rookie team chief Richard Childress switched the car to No. 29 and changed the colour scheme.

For many NASCAR fans, the No. 3 is synonymous with Earnhardt. And some feel that Dillon using the number is disrespectful, that the 3 should never have been used again. After all, it is Earnhardt’s number.