Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - After a 13-year hiatus, the iconic No. 3 car had quite a welcome back party in the Sprint Cup Series this past weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
Team owner Richard Childress was ecstatic when Sunday's time trials for the Daytona 500 had concluded. His 23-year-old grandson, Austin Dillon, put the car number made famous by Dale Earnhardt on the pole position for the Feb. 23 race after posting a lap at 196.019 mph.
Dillon became the fifth rookie driver to win the pole for the Daytona 500, joining Loy Allen Jr. (1994), Mike Skinner (1997), Jimmie Johnson (2002) and Danica Patrick (2013).
"As far as starting the year off with a pole right here, it brings some momentum into our season already to show that [Richard Childress Racing] cars have speed, and I'm so happy to be working with [crew chief] Gil [Martin] and all of our guys [No. 3 team]," Dillon said. "They're so experienced and good at what they do. I know I'm the young guy out of the group, the rookie of the group, and I really think I'm going to learn a lot this year from these guys."
It was like old times again, having the 3 atop the leaderboard at the end of the day at Daytona.
Millions of race fans around the world are thrilled to see the famed Cup car with the slanted 3 on the sides return to the racetrack. Dillon's vehicle, sponsored by Dow Chemicals, is decked out with a simple black, white and red paint scheme compared to the predominately black color scheme used for Earnhardt's GM Goodwrench Service Plus-sponsored car.
While driving the 3 for Childress, Earnhardt claimed six of his seven championships in NASCAR's top series. He also won 67 of his 76 races, including the 1998 Daytona 500.
The 3 had not been used in Cup since Earnhardt's fatal accident during the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. With Kevin Harvick replacing Earnhardt, Childress changed the number of that car from 3 to 29.
"The 3 is special to all of us," Childress said. "I think it's special because Austin, our family, is in the car. The emotion will fly if the 3 rolls in there [victory lane] on Sunday. I won't hold it back, I promise."
Dillon has been behind the wheel of a No. 3 entry for quite some time, as he competed in the Camping World Truck Series full-time from 2010-11 and then raced in the Nationwide Series from 2012-13 before moving up to a full schedule in Sprint Cup. He won the Truck championship in '11 and the Nationwide title last year. Dillon has started off his rookie season in Cup with a bang, winning the pole for the Daytona 500.
"The energy that [Dillon] brings to our whole organization is huge," Childress said. "He built excitement winning the [Truck Series] championship, and then coming back and winning a championship in [Nationwide] last year. It's real special. It makes me think back to the days. He's been in the shop so long, him and his brother, Ty, and I can remember Dale [Earnhardt] 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."
This season in Sprint Cup features eight rookies. Dillon won rookie-of-the- year honors in Trucks in 2010 and Nationwide in '12.
"It's a long season," he said. "There's a lot of ups and downs, and this is one of the top points, starting off like this. So you want to carry that momentum going forward. I just have to stay grounded and have fun."
Dillon will make his 14th career Sprint Cup start in Sunday's 500-mile race at Daytona. His series debut came in October 2011 at Kansas Speedway. Dillon started eighth and finished 31st in last year's Daytona 500, driving the No. 33 car for RCR.
Martin Truex Jr., who moved from Michael Waltrip Racing to Furniture Row Racing this season, secured the outside pole for the Daytona 500. Dillon and Truex are the only two drivers who have locked up their starting positions. The remainder of the 43-car field will be determined in Thursday night's twin qualifying races -- The Budweiser Duel.
The engines in both Dillon and Truex's Chevrolet are built by Earnhardt- Childress Racing. Danny Lawrence is the trackside manager for ECR and has two victories in the Daytona 500 as an engine builder. Lawrence's first Daytona 500 win came with Earnhardt in '98 and second with Harvick in 2007.
"I've really been pretty good about this 3 thing, and when I saw that car hit the racetrack [in Sunday's time trial], 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," Lawrence said.
It will be the fourth time in the 56-year history of the Daytona 500 that the No. 3 starts on the pole. Buddy Baker had that car number when he started first in the 1969 Daytona 500. Ricky Rudd grabbed the pole in the 3 for the 1983 race, and Earnhardt did it in 1996.
Only once has the No. 3 car been to victory lane for the Daytona 500 -- Earnhardt in '98.
Can Dillon be the next driver in the 3 to win NASCAR's most prestigious race?
The pole sitter for the Daytona 500 has not won it since Dale Jarrett in 2000.