DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bill Castle gets chills thinking about it.
The No. 3 car — once driven by his beloved favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt — will return to the Sprint Cup Series on Sunday for the first time since Earnhardt's fatal crash here in 2001.
Castle said he is torn about the 3's comeback, but there's no denying the emotional reaction for many Earnhardt fans.
"Look at my arms," he said, rolling up the short sleeve of his well-worn GM Goodwrench shirt for proof of goosebumps. "It just belongs out there."
The 3 car, now being driven by rookie Austin Dillon — a grandson of Earnhardt team owner Richard Childress — will start from the pole position for Sunday's Daytona 500.
DAYTONA POLE: Dillon, Childress take No. 3 back to top
STARTING LINEUP: 2014 Daytona 500
While the rookie's achievement is being hailed by many eager to see the No. 3's legend continue, some fans remain mixed on whether the 3's return is a good thing. There's a debate among fans over whether the number should have come back after 2001.
Castle, of Sarasota, Fla., said he realized Dillon would eventually bring the number to the Sprint Cup Series after the 23-year-old won championships with it in the Camping World Truck Series (2011) and Nationwide Series (2013).
"They gave it 13 years," he said. "It's time."
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Those who have embraced the 3's return have been eager to snatch up new apparel. At a souvenir hauler outside Daytona International Speedway's Turn 4, Jim and Debbie Gay were busy this week selling merchandise featuring Dillon and younger brother Ty.
There is no Earnhardt No. 3 gear for sale there — that's at another trailer — but the husband and wife do sell generic No. 3 hats alongside Dillon merchandise.
Most of the fans visiting the hauler, though, have wanted something with Dillon's name on it. An example: One T-shirt says "THE LEGACY CONTINUES" with a large No. 3.
And Dillon merchandise has been a hot seller. Jim Gay said the couple "couldn't even get the doors open" on Wednesday before a crowd had formed outside.
"It was crazy," Debbie Gay said. "We sold five (diecast) cars out the back before we even opened."
NASCAR's Jon Schwartz said Dillon has been the No. 1-seller at the track this week among drivers who only have one merchandise hauler on site. That's everyone but Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Yes, he's even outselling Danica Patrick, who made history when she became the first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole in 2013.
Dillon also jumped to the No. 7 biggest seller on NASCAR.com; he was 22nd last season, when he raced in the Nationwide Series. Among the new offerings is a T-shirt and die-cast car commemorating the pole win, Richard Childress Racing said.
David Burton, a 54-year-old visiting Daytona Beach from North Vernon, Ind., opted for two Dillon shirts totaling nearly $50. A devoted Earnhardt fan, Burton has spent the years since 2001 rooting for Kyle Busch and now Dillon.
"Not one person has said anything negative about that deal," Burton said of the return of the 3. "Everybody I talk to thinks it's cool as (crap). Nobody is disgracing Dale Sr.'s legacy — it's a tribute."
Tyson Webber, executive vice president of client management for the GMR sports marketing agency (which handles NASCAR sponsors such as Lowe's and MillerCoors), said Dillon's pole position will have a positive impact because the sport's core demographic "still has a lot of affinity toward the 3 car."
"(To) see it be successful is definitely going to boost sales when you look at the connection to Earnhardt Sr. with Richard Childress' grandson driving it and the fact that it's a sleek-looking, well-designed car," Webber said. "All those things will increase interest in the story and sales around the merchandise."
WATCH: Dillon discusses winning the Daytona 500 pole
Rookie Austin Dillon brought the iconic No. 3 back to Daytona and drove it to the pole position in The Great American Race. NASCAR
While Dillon's pole position might have moved some merchandise, it doesn't seem to have translated into any increase in ticket sales. Daytona International Speedway said sales were trending about where they were after Patrick won the pole last year; reseller SeatGeek.com said demand on the secondary ticket market is at an all-time low.
"While he's grown his fan base because it's clear he will be an excellent driver in the sport for some time, I don't think he has quite the appeal outside the sport yet that Danica had," Webber said. "I'm not sure he'll get there in terms of the bump that Danica saw last year in merchandise sales. But there's still going to be a lot of nostalgia."
The car, sponsored by Dow Chemical and General Mills' Cheerios brand, is not all black like Earnhardt's 3 was. Recently, Earnhardt's mother Martha expressed concern the car would too closely resemble her late son's.
Others close to Earnhardt — including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, who won the 500 in 2001 for Earnhardt's team as the "Intimidator" crashed behind him — have been fully supportive.
"I knew Dale pretty good and I think he'd be cool with it," Waltrip said. "I know how good of friends Dale and Richard were and I just feel it's right.
"I'm happy it's back because I love Dale and any time I see something that reminds me of him, it makes me smile."
But it's not that easy for some Earnhardt fans.
Steve Hopkins, who strolled around the infield fan zone on Thursday wearing Earnhardt gear, got a pained look on his face when asked about the 3's return. The Waverly, Ohio-based fan said the number should have never raced again, even though he acknowledged Richard Petty's old No. 43 has been on track for years.
"I knew they were eventually going to bring it back, and I know it's a good story for the sport," Hopkins said. "And I know Austin earned the chance. But I just wish Dale would have been the last to run it."
Hopkins showed off the background on his cell phone – an American flag and a picture of Earnhardt's car entering the final turn in 2001. He looked toward the track and sighed.
"It was pretty dramatic for me just watching it go around in qualifying," he said. "It's going to be wrenching (on Sunday)."
Contributing: Nate Ryan
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