Daytona 500 Pole-Winner Austin Dillon Already Proving Worthy of Iconic No. 3 Car

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2014

Proud grandfather and car owner Richard Childress with driver Austin Dillon after Dillon won the pole for the Daytona 500.
Proud grandfather and car owner Richard Childress with driver Austin Dillon after Dillon won the pole for the Daytona 500.Terry Renna/Associated Press

That didn't take long.

In about the time it took his No. 3 Chevrolet to race around the 2.5-mile track at Daytona International Speedway at a clip of 196.019 miles per hour on Sunday, Austin Dillon took the first major step towards proving that he's worthy of bringing the iconic car number back to the NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.

But it was only a baby step, and Dillon knows it.

Since making it official that Richard Childress Racing would be bringing the No. 3 back to the sport's premier national touring series for the first time since Dale Earnhardt's death that occurred while driving a Chevy adorned with that numeral on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Dillon has said all the right things. As driver of the car now, and as team owner Richard Childress' much-scrutinized grandson, Dillon knows the world is watching.

But there is a major difference between saying and doing all the right things outside of the car, which are important nonetheless, and doing enough inside the car to prove he's not just the right guy, he’s but ready to do driving it justice.

So winning the pole for this Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 was nice—for Dillon, for Richard Childress, for all of those employed under the RCR banner.

"I feel like this is for the guys at RCR. They brought the house down here," Dillon told Tom Jensen of afterward.

It is, of course, not enough.

Earnhardt won six of his record-tying seven Cup championships while driving the No. 3 for RCR. The NASCAR Hall of Famer captured 67 of his career total 76 race victories in it, most of them in the black No. 3 Goodwrench motif he made synonymous with NASCAR before his untimely death.

So Dillon, 23, knows he must win races, not just poles. And eventually—not this year, but eventually—he will be expected to contend for multiple championships in the No. 3.

Dillon also is well aware of the fact that last year's pole-winner for the 500 was none other than Danica Patrick, another unseasoned Cup driver at the time who began her first full-time season on the top circuit amidst much fanfare. She went on to finish a respectable eighth in the 500, but then pretty much disappeared from contention in races for the remainder of the season, finishing a disheartening 27th in points.

Fans of the No. 3 will be howling if Dillon can't follow up his pole-winning effort in Daytona with a whole lot more than that this season.

Even his fellow competitors seem to understand the significance of the hallowed number returning to the track, although driver Jeff Gordon said he did not think it would be strange to see it back in competition for the first time since Earnhardt's death when Dillon leads the 43-car field off the starting grid next Sunday. 

Dillon's No. 3 paint scheme is similar, but not the same as the one Dale Earnhardt's made famous.
Dillon's No. 3 paint scheme is similar, but not the same as the one Dale Earnhardt's made famous.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Honestly, I don't even think about it that way," Gordon said recently. "If it was a black-and-silver Goodwrench car, a No. 3, and it had Earnhardt on the door, that would definitely bring back a lot of memories and thoughts. But to me, now that's Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing, and I'm looking at them as another competitor.

"I think it would be great for the sport if they go to Victory Lane and do well (over the course of the season). I know there are a lot of fans who miss seeing that No. 3 in Victory Lane, and I think they want to see that."

No one wants to see it more than Richard Childress, who admits as much. He told reporters after Dillon won the pole that they are bound to see lots of tears if they all get to visit Victory Lane again after the running of Sunday's Daytona 500. 

"The 3 is special to all of us: the family, the Earnhardt family, to every one one of us," Childress told Jensen of "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."

It may not happen Sunday, of course. Starting first on a superspeedway that features restrictor-plate racing for 500 miles means next to nothing in the big picture at a place where cars can go from first to 10th, and vice versa, in less than a single lap.

But it would be a great story, if it did, and the continuation of an even greater one.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this story were obtained first-hand by the writer.

Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz