DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When NASCAR raises the curtain on its 2014 season with Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500, rookie Austin Dillon, behind the wheel of the No. 3 Chevrolet fielded by his grandfather’s team, Richard Childress Racing, will lead the 43-car field to the green flag.
But the question remains: How long will the 23-year-old Dillon, who captured the pole with a fast lap of 196.019 miles per hour last Sunday, be able to hold on to his coveted position? Dillon will have a field of snarling stock cars nipping at his rear fender, eager to leave him in their contrails.
Dillon, however, learned plenty about his car during Thursday’s Budweiser Duels, a pair of 150-mile qualifying races that set the grid, when he led the first 14 laps before dropping back to conserve his car in a 19th-place finish.
“I wanted to know that we had something I can move around with in the race,’’ Dillon said. “And now we get to have some fun. Man, that car is super-fast. I think we could get to the draft from anywhere we wanted to.’’
Dillon will need to rely upon that strength of his Earnhardt-Childress Racing-built engines in holding off the Joe Gibbs Racing muscle cars of Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, who swept the Duels in their Toyotas.
Hamlin’s victory in the first Duel was yet another impressive showing for his No. 11, which visited Victory Lane after winning all three segments of the 75-lap Sprint Unlimited. Kenseth and Hamlin will start third and fourth, respectively, behind Dillon and outside pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr., who will have to go to the rear of the field after he was forced to go to a backup when his No. 78 Chevy got caught up in a last-lap melee in the second Duel.
“I think the biggest challenge we’ll have is keeping the reins back only for 400 miles — 450 miles,’’ Hamlin said. “It’s going to be a much longer race. Obviously, when you go out there and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it’s hard not to just want to go out there, charge out there, show that you’re still on top and still the best right on Lap 1. I think that will be my challenge with myself, keeping the reins back and realizing how long this race is, trying to be as patient as I can.’’
NASCAR’s season opener has been a test of the patience of not only JGR, which hasn’t been to Victory Lane at Daytona since 1993, but that of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will start ninth, in Row 5, 10 years after his only Daytona 500 triumph.
Since then, Earnhardt has finished runner-up in three of the last four 500s, including the last two.
“When we’ve run second, we’ve come from third or fourth or fifth or sixth in those last few laps,’’ Earnhardt said. “You are not going to win the race from back there. You might run second, but you aren’t going to win. You need to be leading the race. I would much rather be leading the race, and the Daytona 500, inside of five laps to go than be anywhere else.”Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.