The stylized No. 3, made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt, has made its way back to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. And it has done so in a big way.
Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, who fielded Chevrolets for Earnhardt until his death in the 2001 Daytona 500, drove the No. 3 livery to the top of pylon in Sunday’s Daytona 500 pole qualifying.
Dillon’s team has shown intimidating speed at Daytona International Speedway since the series tested in early January. That speed has carried into Speedweeks.
“You want to perform with the No. 3; everyone wants to see it perform,” said Dillon, who won the pole with a lap of 196.019 mph (45.914 seconds). “It’s a long season and this is one of the top points. You want to carry that momentum going forward.”
Teams with Childress-powered engines have been near the top of the speed charts since the sport made its return to the beach late last week.
Martin Truex Jr., whose Furniture Row Racing Chevy runs Earnhardt-Childress Racing powerplants, qualified second, just .039 seconds behind Dillon.
Ryan Newman (fifth) and Paul Menard (10th) helped ECR horsepower secure four of the 10 fastest speeds on Pole Day.
Dillon’s run marks the first time the No. 3 car has sat on the pole in Daytona since Earnhardt posted the fastest speed for the 1996 Daytona 500. Earnhardt finished second that season but won “The Great American Race” two years later.
“You know, the 3 is special to all of us,” Childress said. “The (Childress) 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 (to victory lane) on Sunday. I won’t hold it back, I promise.”
The 23-year-old Dillon will run for the Rookie of the Year award in the Cup Series this season. He has already campaigned the No. 3 to two NASCAR national touring series championships: the Nationwide Series (2013) and Camping World Truck Series (2011).
Being the man to bring the vaunted No. 3 back to NASCAR’s premier level, though, presents a new set of tasks. To his credit, Dillon grew up with the number and is all too familiar with the gravitas that comes with being the first driver to don the stylized No. 3 in 13 years.
That sentiment was echoed by none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.:
“I look forward to seeing it out on the racetrack,” Earnhardt said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders. I would be worried if I didn’t think he’d respect it or not understand the legacy, but he does. I know he does. He appreciates it.”
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro