It's a possibility that team owner Richard Childress will continue using the number when grandson Austin Dillon makes an eventual move to the Cup Series. The No. 3 has not been used in a Cup race since Earnhardt's fatal accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
But Earnhardt Jr. believes Dillon has earned the right to keep the number he's used for much of his career. Childress has maintained that he'll only allow members of the Childress and Earnhardt families to use the No. 3.
"He drove the 3 in dirt racing, he drove the 3 in the Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, he has earned the right to run that number as long as he wants," Earnhardt said Friday at Daytona International Speedway. "It could have been any kid coming up through the ranks that had ran that number and that's (Dillon's) number. Maybe he's not even an Earnhardt fan. Maybe that is just his number.
"He wants to run it. I think it's not really fair to deny somebody that opportunity. I'm OK with it. I know that might not be the way a lot of people feel or some people feel, but I'm sure it's the minority that feels that way. I think that a lot of people will be telling Austin positive things about it."
Childress has said feedback from fans has been positive about Dillon using the slanted No. 3 that the late Earnhardt made famous. He holds the lease on the number and has chosen not to run it in Cup since the seven-time champion was killed. NASCAR does not retire numbers.
"It was an iconic number for my father and it means a lot to a lot of his fans," Earnhardt said. "This sport doesn't really retire numbers and all the numbers have history tied to them for several different reasons. The No. 3 is no different."
Dillon has made six Cup starts this year, but used the No. 33 in the two races he ran as part of a Childress partnership. He won two races last year in the Nationwide Series driving the No. 3 for his grandfather. Younger brother Ty is currently driving the No. 3 in the Truck Series.
Earnhardt believes Austin Dillon has a lot of potential and will make fans of the No. 3 proud.
"I think he has really surprised everybody. He has got great speed. He has shown he can be aggressive and he will work real hard at every position," Earnhardt said. "I think it's exciting to see Richard have something new to kind of keep the fire going in him and keep RCR excited about their future. That rests squarely on those two kids shoulders.
"They were raised really well. They've got great manners and every time I've been around them I've been impressed. Austin, I think he's ready. I think he's ready to go."