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.

But, strictly speaking, the No. 3 never belonged to Earnhardt: unlike the system introduced into F1 this year, race numbers in NASCAR are given to teams, not drivers. Childress owned the No. 3, and said recently that it was his and Earnhardt’s intention the number would continue to be used after Earnhardt retired, ideally by one of their relatives. Dillon is Childress’ grandson.

This isn’t a trick to get some easy publicity: Dillon has run No. 3 for the bulk of his career, starting in karts before Earnhardt’s death. He used machines with the No. 3 to win NASCAR’s lower-tier Nationwide and Truck Series titles. And he only decided to use it in the Sprint Cup after talking to his grandfather and members of Earnhardt’s family. Dillon recently said: “Dale was so important in driving that number. But Dale Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt not because of that number, but because he was a hero.”

Earnhardt’s son, NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt Jr, has given Dillon his blessing, adding: “I don’t look at the numbers tied to drivers as much as the history of the number. The number is more of a bank that you deposit history into. It doesn’t really belong to any individual.”

The deposits of the No. 3 are stacked with history: it has been used to win 97 top-level NASCAR races. Only two numbers - 11 and 43 - have won more.

The No. 3 first appeared in the third NASCAR Strictly Stock race, with Bill Snowden taking fifth place at Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsboro, NC in August 1949. Paul Goldsmith won the final race on the Daytona Beach road course in the 3 car in 1958.

Some of NASCAR’s greats have used the number. ‘Fireball’ Roberts won in the 3 at Daytona in 1959. Buck Baker took the final two wins of his career running No. 3, with his son Buddy also taking a pair of wins in with the number. David Pearson - arguably NASCAR’s greatest-ever driver - took his first three wins in the No. 3, while legendary moonshine runner turned racer Junior Johnson took nine wins using it.

It was Johnson’s success in the 3 that prompted Childress to use it when he started out as an owner/driver in 1976. Childress was a moderately successful driver, so when he had the chance to sign 1980 champion Earnhardt for 1981 he stepped aside. Earnhardt went on to take 67 of his 76 career wins, and six of his seven NASCAR titles, in Childress’s No. 3 car.

Ultimately, Dillon seems rightly respectful of Earnhardt’s legacy, and has handed constant questions about the number with good grace. Starting with Sunday’s Daytona 500, his focus will be on building his career as a driver - and building a new legacy for the No. 3.