DAYTONA BEACH — With the famed No. 3 on his car 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 International Speedway.
Dillon reawakened the days of "The Intimidator" and proved he can handle the spotlight thrust on his ride in the 3, winning the pole Sunday for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.
He took the top spot with a lap at 196.019 mph on the 2½ mile superspeedway in a car Richard Childress has refused to field at NASCAR's top level since Earnhardt's fatal accident on the last lap of the 2001 race.
But with his 23-year-old grandson ready to move to Sprint Cup full time, Childress let Dillon 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 (the first of his seven titles came in No. 2).
Dillon was a kid when he posed for a picture with Earnhardt in Victory Lane after the legendary driver's breakthrough 1998 win.
NASCAR's family roots run deep, so Childress never had to leave the family tree to find the right driver for the number.
Dillon has used it in NASCAR competition since 2009 in trucks. He won that title in 2011 driving the No. 3 for Richard Childress Racing, and the Nationwide title last season in the same number.
So Childress knew — he always knew and has insisted that Earnhardt gave his blessing long before his death — that Dillon could use the number if he ever made it to Cup.
This day was emotional all the way through RCR, which had its ups and downs in the 13 years since Earnhardt's death. Dillon signals a changing of the guard with Kevin Harvick, who slid into Earnhardt's seat the week after his death, moving to Stewart-Haas.
Engine builder Danny Lawrence said the company ran on adrenaline after Earnhardt's death. Dillon has given the organization a shot in the arm.
"On the sentimental side, I was really pretty good about this 3 thing," Lawrence said. "But when I saw that car hit the racetrack today, it kind of tore me up a little bit. Austin is such a good guy, he has been great for our company."
Said Childress: "The energy that he brings to our whole organization is huge. He's been in the shop so long, him and his brother, Ty. I can remember Dale pushing them around on a creeper down there in the garage when they were just little babies, so that's how far they go back."
Martin Truex, in a Chevrolet for Furniture Row Racing, qualified second at 195.852 mph. He bumped the Ford of Greg Biffle (195.818) off of the front row. The top two are the only spots set; the rest will be determined after Thursday's two 150-mile Duels.