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Amid swirl of emotions, Dillon keeps cool

February 16, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Atop the Fan Deck in the Daytona International Speedway infield, spectators pointed their cell phone cameras toward the exit of Turn 4. On the roof of a transporter, a television photographer tightened the focus of his lens squarely on Richard Childress. Down in the garage area, people shielded their eyes from the bright sun as they looked skyward, directing their gazes toward the track's scoring tower, waiting for a certain red number to flash at the top.

On Austin Dillon's second qualifying lap, it happened. And when the No. 3 car moved into the provisional pole for the Daytona 500, an almost awestruck "oooohhhhhh" echoed through NASCAR's most famous race track. The No. 3 wasn't just back at the sport's top level -- it was in position to lead the field to the green flag in the sport's biggest race.

Really, it shouldn't have been a surprise -- Dillon was fastest in a January test at Daytona that was shortened by rain to a single day, and cars owned by or affiliated with his Richard Childress Racing team dominated both qualifying practices on Saturday. The big stunner would have been if Dillon hadn't contended for the pole, given the consistent speed he had shown on the 2.5-mile layout over more than a month. But that certainly didn't lessen the impact of the No. 3 returning with such a flourish, for its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event since Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash here 13 years ago.

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"It was kind of emotional," Childress, Dillon's grandfather, said after the pole was clinched, just as Richard Petty walked over to shake his hand. "It was really special to be able to come back and put the 3 up there on the pole. Now we've got a bigger job ahead of us."

Indeed, anything can happen in the Daytona 500, and a fast car doesn't always guarantee success in the Great American Race. But all that is still a week away. Sunday's front-row qualifying session was the culmination of all the groundwork laid to make the return of the No. 3 a success, something evident in the nervousness Dillon's crewmen showed while waiting out the final few qualifiers -- crew chief Gil Martin bore a visible wince, and there were audible sighs of relief after Martin Truex Jr. slid into second -- and the whoops and hugs they exchanged after the first spot had finally been secured.

The coolest cat in the room was the 23-year-old Dillon, who during the entire ordeal seemed about as edgy as a Frisbee. Worn out by a few days of hustling back and forth between the big track and the Volusia Speedway Park dirt track, and having the benefit of a late draw in front-row qualifying, he slept in until past noon on Sunday, and then dozed through most of the Russell Crowe film "Broken City." He ate a wrap, walked out to the garage, chatted with Martin, put on his suit and jumped in his car. No sweat.

"We were pretty confident when we came down here for the test, and it was that fast right off the trailer," Dillon said. "We weren't sandbagging much, we were just kind of giving everything we got from the beginning, and the car held on. … I guess the wind helped us a little bit, and everything has to go right. Your team works so hard to put everything together, and that last, final tune-up going into qualifying is so important. For me, it's just not messing up -- making sure I hit the shifts at the right RPM, and then holding a line."

There's no rattling this kid, who last fall at Talladega when filling in for the injured Tony Stewart was third at the white flag before being caught up in a crash. Dillon has grown up around RCR, to the point where he used equipment in the race shop to put together science projects in high school. He's grown up with the No. 3, having used it as his jersey number when playing in the Little League World Series, well before his championship runs in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series. And he's grown up around the Earnhardt legacy, even appearing alongside the "Intimidator" in Victory Lane.

No wonder then, when it came time for his money lap, he jumped up the board from 20th to first. No wonder when the cameras and microphones arrived, he handled all the questions with aplomb.

"He's grown up in this. He's grown up aground (the media) and seen Dale get swarmed and questioned," said Mike Dillon, dad to Austin and Ty Dillon, and RCR's general manager. "It's amazing to me -- the biggest thing is, they really did pay attention growing up. I didn't think they were. They're your kids, you're always busting their butts for something. I didn't think they were paying attention, and they really were paying attention. I think he knew what was coming when he did this deal, and he wants it. He wanted to bring that number back. It's been a number he wanted to run. He knows he's got to perform, everybody expects that. But he expects that, too."

Richie Gilmore has also noticed it. The chief operating officer for Earnhardt Childress Engines -- which supplies the power plants to RCR and its affiliated teams -- was one of Earnhardt's right-hand men during the heyday of Dale Earnhardt Inc., when no team was better on restrictor-plate tracks like Daytona. And he sees a little of the old driver of the No. 3 car in the new one.

"That's probably the most amazing part, from being around him from the Truck championship to the Nationwide championship, just how cool he is," Gilmore said of Dillon. "Just sitting there every lap running for the championship last year in Nationwide, he gives you that same feeling that when I was around Dale. He was that calm guy. He always had the answer and the solution that would be all right. I told him after the Nationwide championship that he gives you that same feeling like an Earnhardt or a Jimmie Johnson. He just doesn't get rattled."

Having a stout car certainly helped. Vehicles built by RCR swept the front row -- the Furniture Row Racing team of Martin Truex Jr. is a Childress affiliate -- and took four of the top 10 positions. Ryan Newman was fifth, Paul Menard was 10th and Brian Scott was 12th. Plate racing has been a priority at RCR since Earnhardt's days, and that legacy lives on. The week after Thanksgiving, the team was testing at a General Motors proving ground in Arizona, with the work aimed squarely toward the Daytona 500.

How appropriate, then, that Sunday's RCR assault on front-row qualifying was led by the No. 3 car. "I'm sure it's emotional for all the fans, and fans of the number, but it's got to be great for Austin," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has long since signed off on Dillon using his father's former number. "… He's going to have an awesome week, and he's going to do a great job representing the heritage of that number and what that number means. So I feel real comfortable about it."

After the qualifying session had ended, when Dillon finally found his grandfather in the garage area, the two embraced in a vigorous hug. Childress was clearly moved by the moment, but kept his emotions in check -- for now. "The emotion will fly if the 3 rolls it in there (next) Sunday," he said. "I won't hold it back then, I promise."

As for Dillon? Sunday, as his qualifying lap approached, he was the one urging his grandfather to not be nervous. For all the emotion surrounding the No. 3, for all the attention it has and will receive this Speedweeks, the driver at the center of it all somehow seems able to just enjoy the ride.

"You want to perform with the No. 3, and everybody wants to see it perform, and that's why my grandfather is always concerned. You want to go out there and run well," Dillon said. "It's a long season. There's a lot of ups and downs, and this is one of the top points, obviously starting off like this, so you want to carry that momentum going forward. But for me, I just have to stay grounded and have fun."

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