If the engine guy had mixed emotions, imagine how much Earnhardt’s longtime friend and car owner Richard Childress had as he watched his own grandson drive the car.
An emotional day turned even more enjoyable yet draining as 23-year-old Sprint Cup rookie Austin Dillon put the No. 3 car on the pole for the 2014 Daytona 500.
“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 there (to victory lane) on Sunday. I won’t hold it back, I promise.”
Dillon’s capturing the pole didn’t surprise many. He had a strong car, going 196.019 mph around Daytona.
Martin Truex Jr., whose car also carried an engine from Earnhardt Childress Racing (a combination of the former RCR and Dale Earnhardt Inc. engine shops), turned a lap of 195.852 and will share the front row next Sunday with Dillon. The remainder of the field will be set by qualifying races Thursday.
“The guys at the shop I am sure are so jacked right now,” Dillon said. “It just means a lot for us as a company. … Hopefully this will rally some of the guys back at home.”
It might seem strange for an organization to rally around the performance of a rookie running with a number made famous by a driver arguably the greatest in NASCAR history.
But Dillon has driven with the No. 3 his entire NASCAR career, winning the trucks title in 2011 and the Nationwide title in 2013. Childress has often said that his passion for racing waned after Earnhardt’s death. The performance of Austin and younger brother Ty re-energized him.
“I know that he thought long and hard about it, and he said, ‘I don’t know if it was right,’ ” Lawrence said about Childress bringing back the 3. “People send in to our website saying, ‘That’s Dale’s number.’
“The facts are that Richard had the number and we’ve had it in trucks and we’ve had it in Nationwide. What really made him feel good is … he talked to the whole family and when (two of Earnhardt’s children) Kelly and Dale Jr. said, ‘We think it would be great,’ he said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ ”
Lawrence admitted that “when I saw that car hit the racetrack today, it kind of tore me up a little bit.”
“It’s not that I wasn’t sold on it, but I’m still so dedicated to Dale Earnhardt — the last time I was here, it was so emotional to see that car on the racetrack,” Lawrence said.
“If he would have qualified 37th, there would have been a lot of ugly questions.”
Now the ugly questions should become fewer thanks to Dillon’s capturing the pole. But ugly comments will continue.
It’s part of the nature of Dillon’s driving the No. 3.
“You can’t do something like this without a support of a lot of people,” Dillon said. “The support we have from the beginning from the guys that are Hall of Famers and Dale Jr. and Kelly Earnhardt — without the family support around this garage, it would be really tough to do what we did and bring the 3 back.
“I’ve been trying to stay as much focused on the performance side because I know that is what everybody wants to see is that car perform. That is where my head is pointed at all times. Hopefully we can keep it that way.”
When it comes down to it, the number has no bearing on performance. It was all the rookie — along with the hundreds of RCR employees who build the parts and pieces.
“I don’t think the number won the pole, the driver and the team and everybody at the organization wins it,” said Dillon’s RCR teammate Ryan Newman, who was fifth in qualifying behind Dillon, Truex and the Fords of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
While Newman stated the obvious, there was the emotional feeling of fate that allows for sports to transcend that type of logic. Earnhardt had an incredible career at Daytona, where he won 34 times in various series but needed 20 tries before winning the Daytona 500. Dillon has always been associated with the number, and the team can’t help but feel it is carrying a legacy — part RCR legacy, part Earnhardt legacy.
“I (am) happy for Austin, happy for his first career Cup pole coming at Daytona for the 500 would be pretty awesome for him,” Earnhardt Jr. said before Dillon won the pole but knowing it was a good possibility. “I know he would enjoy that. … It will be a great storyline for the race.”
It is a great storyline for those in Welcome, N.C., and a storyline they hope is a sign of more greatness, more victories and more special, emotional moments with No. 3.
“Every day you drive onto our complex, you see Richard’s 3 and you see the heritage of that 3 there, so to be able to be a part of this, it’s a dream come true for me,” Dillon crew chief Gil Martin said.
“I know it is for everybody in our whole team and our whole organization because I’ve watched Austin come from being a little guy to where he’s at today, and it’s been an amazing journey to watch. To be a part of it now, I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a great run.”