DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- With the No. 3 on his door and memories of the late Dale Earnhardt fresh in his mind, Austin Dillon took the fabled number out of hibernation and straight to the top at Daytona.
Dillon won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 driving the No. 3 Chevrolet — a car Richard Childress had refused to field at NASCAR's top level since Earnhardt's fatal accident on the last lap of the 2001 race.
But now that his 23-year-old grandson is ready to race in the Sprint Cup Series, Childress allowed Dillon to use the number widely associated with the seven-time champion. Earnhardt won 67 races, six championships and the 1998 Daytona 500 driving the No. 3.
Childress has long been fielding cars with the No. 3 for Dillon in other series, and he always knew if his grandson made it to the top, he could use Earnhardt's number. He said it was something Earnhardt had given his blessing to long before his death.
Dillon doesn't take the responsibility lightly.
"Everybody wants to see this number perform well, and that's what my goals are," Dillon said.
Dillon turned a lap at 196.019 mph to win the pole in Sunday's session, which is only used to set the front row for the kickoff to the 2014 season.
Martin Truex Jr., driving a Chevrolet for Furniture Row Racing, qualified second with a lap at 195.852 mph. Truex's engine is built by Earnhardt-Childress Racing, giving the company a sweep of the Daytona 500 front row.
The rest of the field is set Thursday through a pair of qualifying races.
Childress knew he had a shot at the pole, if not with Dillon then from another one of his four Richard Childress Racing entries. All were fast in January testing, and again in two Saturday practice sessions.
But it was Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., the first driver to make his qualifying attempt, who set the pace early and held down the provisional pole for most of the session. RCR drivers Brian Scott and Paul Menard failed to bump Earnhardt, and it was surprisingly Ford driver Greg Biffle who finally did it as the 33rd driver to take his turn.
Ryan Newman then took his shot for RCR and missed, and Dillon was the next driver out.
He shot to the top of the board and his grandfather pumped his fist in celebration. He then nervously watched as the final 10 drivers made their runs, and gave another fist-pump in celebration.
"We wanted to come down here and put on a good show with the 3, and to have another ECR engine with Furniture Row on the front row, we couldn't be more proud," Childress said.
So could he finally relax?
"The pressure is always on when you've got grandsons racing for you," said Childress, who thanked all the sponsors who "believed in this young kid, who took a chance on him."