DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Pressure? What pressure?
Rookie Austin Dillon said the weighty burden of an anxious legion of Dale Earnhardt fans did not cause him to buckle Sunday when he went out to qualify for the 56th Daytona 500. He simply climbed behind the wheel of the iconic No. 3, long associated with the late seven-time NASCAR champion, and celebrated its much-anticipated return with an emotionally charged pole victory for NASCAR’s season-opening race.
Dillon, the unflappable 23-year-old grandson of car owner Richard Childress, took the first step in putting his stamp on the car by winning the pole for next Sunday’s 500-mile marathon with a fast lap of 196.019 miles per hour in the Dow-sponsored Chevrolet.
“Well, it was pretty simple [Saturday] night and today,’’ Dillon said when asked how he handled the mounting pressure that seemed to accompany his Daytona debut.
He toured the windswept 2.5-mile trioval at Daytona International Speedway in a blistering 45.914 seconds, which knocked the No. 16 Ford of Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle (195.818 m.p.h.) off the provisional pole.
“I didn’t have too much scheduled before qualifying, so I slept in until about 12:30 and watched a movie,’’ Dillon said, matter-of-factly.
“Ate a wrap with a burger in it, and then walked out to the garage, talked to [crew chief] Gil [Martin] for a minute, put my suit on, and walked to my car, had fun with my guys for a little bit, jumped in it, and qualified it.’’
Just like that, Dillon found himself sitting pretty as the pole-sitter for the Daytona 500, marking the fifth time a rookie has started on the pole of NASCAR’s crown jewel event.
It was the second time in as many years, as well, after Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a Sprint Cup pole — at Daytona, no less.
But seeing the No. 3 back on the track at Daytona — where Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 — stirred some powerful emotions. At least it did for Danny Lawrence, trackside manager for Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines, who celebrated his 52d birthday Sunday by watching ECR put three of Richard Childress Racing’s four cars in the top 10: Dillon (pole), Ryan Newman (fifth, 195.707), and Paul Menard (10th, 194.919).
“I’ve been really pretty good about this 3 thing,’’ said Lawrence, who in his first year in the sport worked as an engine builder at RCR and helped build the engine that propelled Earnhardt to his only Daytona 500 victory in 1998. “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.’’
Dillon’s presence at RCR seemed to have a similar invigorating effect on his grandfather, who nervously paced atop the No. 3’s hauler in the NASCAR garage area as his grandson zoomed to the top of the speed charts.
Dillon then withstood shots from several pole contenders, the most serious of which proved to be Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 78 Chevy.
“I was up there with Wally Dallenbach, and we were talking, and I told him the 78 is going to be [tough],’’ Childress said, noting the threats posed by the last two qualifiers: Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer.
“Jimmie Johnson, you can’t take nothing away from those guys, but we were sweating it down to the last car when Clint Bowyer [went out and qualified 20th-fastest].’’
Truex, whose car shared a technical alliance with ECR that gave him the same horsepower that was beneath Dillon’s hood, bounced Biffle from the front row when he went 195.852 to earn a starting spot in the 43-car grid on the outside pole.
It was Truex’s second front-row start after winning the pole (with an ECR engine) for the rain-shortened 2009 Daytona 500.
“Got a pretty good track record of qualifying here with an ECR engine under the hood,’’ said Truex, who did not do any testing at Daytona during the winter and turned only two laps in Saturday’s late practice session. “Obviously, they’re building some big power and I’m definitely glad I didn’t knock the 3 off the pole. That’s all I’m going to say. We’ll wait until July to get ours.’’
Had he done so, Truex might have incurred the wrath of a legion of Earnhardt loyalists, all of whom no doubt shed a tear, burst out in a holler, and raised a glass in honor of Dillon’s pole victory in the No. 3.
Childress, though, did his best to keep his emotions in check.
“You know, the 3 is special to all of us,’’ he said. “The family, the Earnhardt family to every one of us. But I think it’s special because [with] 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.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.