DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- "We're taking our lady to the dance," an elated Austin Dillon shouted to his crew as he crossed the finish line in Race No. 1 of Thursday's Budweiser Duel qualifying race for the Daytona 500.
No, Dillon didn't win. Nor was he in danger of not qualifying having won the pole-position Sunday. He simply made it through the Duel unscathed.
Entering the night Dillon's goal was rather straightforward. He wanted to get some experience running in the draft, log laps and, most importantly, avoid damaging his pole-winning Chevrolet at all costs. He accomplished all three objectives.
"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."
When the green flag dropped, Dillon quickly asserted himself leading the opening 14 laps, showing his No. 3 car was as fast in race trim as it was in qualifying. But after Dale Earnhardt Jr. passed the rookie and the field began fanning out, racing three-wide at times, Dillon gradually dropped to the rear electing to be conservative and not wreck a potentially winning car.
"As soon as we got kind of going backwards and three-wide, I said all right, now it's time to go back there and play the patient game," Dillon said. "It's no fun, but we get to start on the pole for the Daytona 500 with a really fast car."
With the relief of making it through the Duel with nary a scratch, Dillon's focus now turns to Sunday. Unlike Thursday, where he played it safe, Dillon's plan is to be a fixture at the front of the pack where he can best any steer clear of potential trouble, and only fall back if circumstances dictate.
"I like leading laps," Dillon said. "I like being up front. We'll see what we can do. If it gets hairy; the only thing is trying to get to the back you can get yourself wrecked, too. So, we'll work hard and see where we end up."