DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A rookie with an iconic number will lead the field to the green flag in the 56th running of the Daytona 500.
Austin Dillon, with a speed of 196.019 mph, went out late in qualifying then withstood a barrage of challenges to capture the pole for NASCAR's biggest race Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
The grandson of Richard Childress is in his first full Sprint Cup season. His ascension has seen the return of the No. 3, which had been dormant since Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. And seeing the No. 3 back in NASCAR's top division after a 13-year absence has unleashed a range of emotions. There are many enthusiastic about the return of the number, while others have questioned the decision.
"You've got to have those blinders because you want to stay focused and run well because that's what it's going to take -- you want to perform with the No. 3," Dillon said. "Everybody wants to see it perform, and that's why my grandfather is always concerned ... I just have to stay grounded and have fun."
Through it all Dillon, 23, and his grandfather have been steadfast in their respect for Earnhardt's legacy, while also staking their own claim to the number. Childress used No. 3 as a Cup owner-driver before relinquishing the seat when in 1981 he hired Earnhardt. Dillon used the No. 3 in championship-winning seasons in the Nationwide and Truck Series.
Earnhardt won 67 races, including the 1998 Daytona 500, and six of his seven championships driving for Childress.
"The 3 is special to all of us -- the family, the Earnhardt family, to every one of us," Childress said. "But I think it's special because Austin, our family, is in the car. The emotion will fly if the 3 rolls in (Victory Lane) on Sunday. I won't hold it back, I promise."
Dillon is the fourth rookie to capture the Daytona 500 pole, joining Loy Allen Jr., Mike Skinner and Jimmie Johnson. Starting alongside Dillon on the front row is Martin Truex Jr., whose Furniture Row Racing team shares a technical alliance and receives engines from Dillon's Richard Childress Racing team.
That RCR and its partner teams dominated qualifying was no surprise. In both rounds of Saturday practice, RCR cars topped the speed charts, holding five of the top six spots overall in the morning session.
Dillon and Truex are guaranteed their positions in the Daytona 500, while the balance of the starting lineup will be determined in Thursday's Budweiser Duel qualifying races.
Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman completed the top five qualifiers. Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were sixth and seventh, respectively. After being the first driver to post a time, Earnhardt Jr. spent a majority of the afternoon on the provisional pole before Biffle unseated him.
Danica Patrick, last year's Daytona 500 pole-sitter and the first woman to win a Cup pole, ranked 25th Sunday.
"This car is better than our car last year," Patrick said. "It's a bummer we weren't faster."
Daytona 500 qualifying results
|1)||3||Austin Dillon||DOW Chevrolet||45.914||196.019|
|2)||78||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Chevrolet||45.953||195.852|
|3)||16||Greg Biffle||3M Ford||45.961||195.818|
|4)||99||Carl Edwards||Fastenal Ford||45.986||195.712|
|5)||31||Ryan Newman||Caterpillar Chevrolet||45.987||195.707|
|6)||2||Brad Keselowski||Miller Lite Ford||46.084||195.296|
|7)||88||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||National Guard Chevrolet||46.104||195.211|
|8)||24||Jeff Gordon||Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet||46.144||195.042|
|9)||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||Nationwide Insurance Ford||46.153||195.004|
|10)||27||Paul Menard||Peak/Menards Chevrolet||46.173||194.919|
|11)||9||Marcos Ambrose||Stanley Ford||46.179||194.894|
|12)||33||Brian Scott||Whitetail Chevrolet||46.207||194.776|
|13)||43||Aric Almirola||Smithfield Ford||46.235||194.658|
|14)||48||Jimmie Johnson||Lowe's Chevrolet||46.24||194.637|
|15)||22||Joey Logano||Shell Pennzoil Ford||46.253||194.582|
|16)||13||Casey Mears||GEICO Chevrolet||46.253||194.582|
|17)||20||Matt Kenseth||Dollar General Toyota||46.255||194.574|
|18)||7||Michael Annett||Pilot/Flying J Travel Centers Chevrolet||46.255||194.574|
|19)||5||Kasey Kahne||Farmers Insurance Chevrolet||46.262||194.544|
|20)||15||Clint Bowyer||5-hour Energy Toyota||46.267||194.523|
|21)||18||Kyle Busch||M&M's Toyota||46.272||194.502|
|22)||11||Denny Hamlin||FedEx Express Toyota||46.278||194.477|
|23)||4||Kevin Harvick||Budweiser Chevrolet||46.291||194.422|
|24)||42||Kyle Larson||Target Chevrolet||46.294||194.41|
|25)||10||Danica Patrick||GoDaddy Chevrolet||46.301||194.38|
|26)||21||Trevor Bayne||Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford||46.312||194.334|
|27)||47||AJ Allmendinger||Kroger/USO Chevrolet||46.366||194.108|
|28)||41||Kurt Busch||Haas Automation Chevrolet||46.373||194.078|
|29)||36||Reed Sorenson||Golden Corral Chevrolet||46.376||194.066|
|30)||51||Justin Allgaier||Brandt Professional Agriculture Chevrolet||46.436||193.815|
|31)||38||David Gilliland||Love's Travel Stops Ford||46.455||193.736|
|32)||40||Landon Cassill||Hillman Racing Chevrolet||46.456||193.732|
|33)||30||Parker Kligerman||Swan Energy Toyota||46.489||193.594|
|34)||66||Michael Waltrip||BlueDEF/AAA Toyota||46.529||193.428|
|35)||14||Tony Stewart||Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet||46.544||193.365|
|36)||35||Eric McClure||Hefty Ultimate/Reynolds Wrap Ford||46.655||192.905|
|37)||55||Brian Vickers||Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota||46.681||192.798|
|38)||1||Jamie McMurray||McDonald's Chevrolet||46.706||192.695|
|39)||26||Cole Whitt||Speed Stick Gear Toyota||46.744||192.538|
|40)||34||David Ragan||CSX - Play It Safe Ford||46.795||192.328|
|41)||95||Michael McDowell||K-Love Ford||46.804||192.291|
|42)||32||Terry Labonte||C&J Energy Services Ford||46.842||192.135|
|43)||98||Josh Wise||Curb Records Ford||46.86||192.061|
|44)||52||Bobby Labonte||Phoenix Construction Chevrolet||46.999||191.493|
|45)||87||Joe Nemechek||300 Rise of an Empire Toyota||47.249||190.48|
|46)||83||Ryan Truex||Borla Exhaust Toyota||47.282||190.347|
|47)||23||Alex Bowman||Dr.Pepper Toyota||47.447||189.685|
|48)||93||Morgan Shepherd||SupportMilitary.org Toyota||47.483||189.542|
|49)||77||Dave Blaney||Plinker Arms Ford||No time|