With the famed No. 3 on his car and memories of the late Dale Earnhardt fresh in his mind, Austin Dillon took the fabled number out of hibernation and straight to the top at Daytona.
Dillon reawakened the days of The Intimidator and proved he can handle the spotlight thrust on his ride in the 3, winning the pole Sunday for the season-opening Daytona 500.
He took the top spot with a lap at 196.019 mph in NASCAR’s season opener in a car Richard Childress has refused to field at NASCAR’s top level since Earnhardt’s fatal accident on the last lap of the 2001 race.
But with his 23-year-old grandson ready to move to the Sprint Cup Series, Childress allowed Dillon to use the number widely associated with the seven-time champion. Earnhardt won 67 races, six championships and the 1998 Daytona 500 driving the No. 3.
Dillon was a kid when he posed for a picture with Earnhardt in Victory Lane following his breakthrough 1998 win.
He’ll have many more memories from this milestone, like the congratulatory handshake he received from Richard Petty when qualifying ended.
NASCAR’s family roots run deep, so Childress never had to leave the family tree to find the right driver for the number.
Dillon has been using it in NASCAR national competition since 2009, when he made his Truck Series debut in the No. 3. He won the Truck championship in 2011 driving the No. 3 for Richard Childress Racing, and the Nationwide title last season in the same number.
So Childress knew — he always knew and has insisted that Earnhardt gave his blessing long before his death — that Dillon could use the number if he ever made it to Cup.
Dillon doesn’t take the responsibility lightly.
“Everybody wants to see this number perform well, and that’s what my goals are,” Dillon said. “I love getting in that race car and driving it. I think once we get through some of these races here at the beginning of the year, everything will sink in and I’ll get comfortable and be able to have some fun.”
It’s the fourth time the No. 3 has won the pole for the Daytona 500. Buddy Baker did it in 1969, Ricky Rudd in 1983 and Earnhardt in 1996.
But this one was emotional all the way through RCR, which had its ups-and-downs in performance in the 13 years since Earnhardt’s death. Now Dillon comes in at another changing of the guard, as Kevin Harvick, the driver who slid into Earnhardt’s seat the week after his death, has moved to another team.
Engine builder Danny Lawrence, who made his debut with the company at the 1998 Daytona 500 with Earnhardt, said the company ran on adrenaline after Earnhardt’s death. Dillon has now given the organization a shot in the arm.
“On the sentimental side, I was really pretty good about this 3 thing,” Lawrence said. “But when I saw that car hit the race track today, it kind of tore me up a little bit. Austin is such a good guy, he has been great for our company.
Said Childress: “The energy that he brings to our whole organization is huge. He’s been in the shop so long, him and his brother, Ty. I can remember Dale pushing them around on a creeper down there in the garage when they were just little babies, so that’s how far they go back.”
Martin Truex Jr., driving a Chevrolet for Furniture Row Racing, qualified second with a lap at 195.852 mph. Truex’s engine is built by Earnhardt-Childress Racing, giving the company a sweep of the Daytona 500 front row.
“Obviously without that thing under the hood, we wouldn’t be where we are,” said Truex, who won the Daytona 500 pole in 2009 with an ECR engine when he drove for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
“Got a pretty good track record of qualifying here with an ECR engine under the hood, and obviously they’re building some big power.
The rest of the field is set Thursday through a pair of qualifying races, but Childress and the ECR engines are strong: They had five cars in the top 12 on Sunday.
Childress knew he had a shot at the pole, if not with Dillon then from another one of his four Richard Childress Racing entries. All were fast in January testing, and again in two Saturday practice sessions.
But it was Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., the first driver to make his qualifying attempt, who set the pace early and held down the provisional pole for most of the session. RCR drivers Brian Scott and Paul Menard failed to bump Earnhardt, and it was surprisingly Ford driver Greg Biffle who finally did it as the 33rd driver to take his turn.
Ryan Newman then took his shot for RCR and missed, and Dillon was the next driver out. He and crew chief Gil Martin knew the spotlight was on the No. 3, and stayed focused on the task at hand, even as Childress seemed to be on pins and needles.
“You try to keep the blinders on,” Dillon said of the pressure to win the pole. “For me, it was hitting those shifts, putting in a good line. The funny thing is, there is a build-up to it, and my grandfather, me and Gil said, `Calm down, you’re nervous!’ He said, `I’m not nervous. I’m concerned.’
“So now he doesn’t have to be concerned. We’re on the pole, and things can be a little bit calm.”
Childress celebrated by pumping his fist in the air. He won’t be so reserved next week, admitting if Dillon pulls off a win, he’ll celebrate in a far different way.
“The 3 is special to all of us; the family, the Earnhardt family, to every one of us,” he said. “But I think it’s special because Austin, our family is in the car. The emotion will fly if the 3 rolls in there on Sunday. I won’t hold it back, I promise.”