DAYTONA BEACH, Fla
Austin Dillon might be a rookie, but he’s bringing a legendary number back to NASCAR in a way that made his grandfather beam with pride, thanks to a performance fit for a larger-than-life legend.
Dillon will start from the pole in next Sunday’s Daytona 500, which will be the first time the No. 3 will compete in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race since the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Under sunny Daytona skies on Sunday afternoon, Dillon qualified his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet with a lap of 196.019 mph at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, best of the 49 cars setting times.
“I feel like this is for the guys at RCR, they brought the house down here,” said Dillon, 23, the grandson of car owner Richard Childress.
But the day carried tension with it. Dillon said he and crew chief Gil Martin had to calm Childress down before the qualifying run.
“He said, I’m not nervous, I’m concerned,” Dillon said of Childress. “So now I guess he doesn’t have to be concerned, we’re on the pole, and things can a little bit calm down.”
Dillon, who has 13 career Sprint Cup starts with a best finish of 11th, is the first rookie to win a Daytona 500 pole since Loy Allen in 1994. The last polesitter to go on to win the 500 was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
Starting on the outside of Row 1 will be Martin Truex Jr., 195.852 mph in the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet. Truex uses engines supplied by RCR’s engine-building company.
Furniture Row skipped the open test at Daytona last month and in four hours of practice on Sunday, Truex made just a single simulated qualifying run.
“It’s pretty amazing to not test, run one run yesterday,” Truex said. “Literally this was only the second time the car had been on the racetrack, and just shows what kind of race cars this team builds, and just proud to be the one holding the gas on the floor today.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the first driver to go out on track, and his lap of 195.211 mph held up as the pole speed until Greg Biffle went out 33rd and knocked him off. Dillon then went out 38th and set his speed, which held up for the balance of time trials.
Sunday’s qualifying session only set the front row for Daytona 500. Positions 3-43 will be set in Thursday night’s Duel 150 qualifying races. A total of 49 drivers are entered for 43 spots in the field.
Regardless of where they ultimately qualify, Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Bobby Labonte will have to start the 500 from the back of the field because their respective teams had to replace their engines on Saturday.
Earnhardt Sr. won his only Daytona 500 pole in 1996, when he drove the No. 3 for RCR. Dillon’s Daytona 500 pole was the sixth for RCR, all with different drivers.
The return of the No. 3 to NASCAR’s top series has been one of the biggest stories of the offseason. It’s been equally big for the team.
“On the sentimental side, I’ve really been pretty good about this 3 thing, and when I saw that car hit the racetrack today, it kind of tore me up a little bit, but I’ve got to tell you, Austin is such a good guy that he has been great for our company,” said Danny Lawrence, who heads Childress’ engine-building company.
And a Daytona 500 winner would make it that much bigger.
“The 3 is special to all of us,” said Childress. “The family, the Earnhardt family, to every one of us, but I think it’s special because Austin, our family is in the car. You know, the emotion will fly if the 3 rolls in there on Sunday. I won’t hold it back, I promise.”
Dillon has no hesitation about carrying the No. 3, which he used as a Little League baseball player and coming up through the ranks as a driver.
“You’ve got to be comfortable with what you’re doing, I guess, and approach it with grace,” said Dillon, who will run for NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors this season after winning championships in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. “I had the people’s approval that I felt that I needed to get in the seat and run the number.”
Those people included both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, who both publicly said they supported the move.
Dillon said fan reaction to him using the No. 3 has been overwhelmingly positive as well.
“To see the fans light up at every autograph session excited, (asking) if we’re going to bring it back, asking those questions … I might hear a jeer as I’m walking away or driving away, but at autograph sessions, I’ve never had anybody not positive about it. If I was getting beat up every time I went to an autograph session because we were thinking about it, then it would change my mindset.
“But they were so excited about, ‘Man, we want to see it back, we’re in support of it.’ And they’d tap your (autograph) card while you’re signing it and that’s what you remember at autograph sessions.”