Austin Dillon's pinch-me moment

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Richard Childress strode through the garage at Daytona International Speedway, trailing cameramen and well-wishers on Sunday. A man along the rail above yelled his name and the crowd cheered when the 68-year-old team owner raised a hand in salutation. The other hand signed an autograph.

Richard Petty broke through the gathering crowd with a toothy grin and vigorous handshake.

"You never dream it being this good," Childress said.

Mike Dillon, Childress' son-in-law and vice president of competition for his NASCAR race team, stood, grinning, almost speechless, and ignored the jangling of his cellphone as he marveled at what his son has done and had done, and in the most pressurized and emotional of situations continues to do as a 23-year-old Sprint Cup rookie.

In a No. 3 Chevrolet, a number not used at NASCAR's highest level at Richard Childress Racing since seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt perished on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Austin Dillon on Sunday won the pole for the Feb. 23 installment of the sport's prestige race.

As the grandfather and the father considered it all anew, the 23-year-old in the white firesuit and black cowboy hat posed for photographs in front of the backdrop erected for pole-winners, leaving the sentiment of the moment for them.

"He's grown up in this," Mike Dillon said. "He's grown up around you [media] and he's seen Dale swarmed and questioned. It's amazing to me.

"I think he knew what was coming when he did this deal and I think he wants it. He wanted to bring that number back. It's a number he wanted to run and he knows he has to perform."

Dillon is maintaining his end of a hard bargain, winning the pole with a best lap of 196.019 mph. Martin Truex Jr. was next at 195.852 in his first race with Furniture Row Racing. Greg Biffle was third (195.818).

That Dillon had won his first pole as a Sprint Cup rookie was exemplary. That he did so in the Daytona 500 was historic. That he did so in the No. 3 Chevrolet, after being blazing fast in practices so far and a preseason test in January, that was storybook stuff in progress. But he's leaving that for everyone else. He slept until a half hour before qualifying began, watched a part of a movie, ate a wrap and then socialized with his team for a while.

"Today I just tried to keep my focuses on qualifying the car," he said, "obviously, and having my ... you've got to have those blinders because you want to stay focused and run well because that's what it's going to take to ... 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."

Furniture Row leases engines from RCR's engine shop, so Dillon and his crew, watching qualifying from a television monitor in the garage, had collectively gasped when Truex came so close to their pole speed on his first run. His second pass elicited a collective yelp.

More than a half hour later, as the No. 3 Chevrolet was about to be shepherded to its photo opportunity with its driver and team, Truex ambled past Mike Dillon, eliciting a grin and a shared high-five.

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"Hey, appreciate it," Dillon said.

"You're lucky we bottomed out a little bit," grinned Truex, who half-jokingly said he was relieved not to have knocked Dillon from the pole for fear of incurring the wrath of the team.

Dillon and RCR have mostly avoided the wrath of fans because Dillon has been successful at every rung of his journey to Sunday. He won rookie of the year awards and championships the following year in both the Truck and Nationwide series before graduating to Sprint Cup this season. Though the smallish crowd in attendance on Sunday -- several adorned in vintage black Earnhardt apparel -- seemed ambivalent to Dillon in comparison to the outpouring to Childress and the race car. But there were no catcalls.

"I think it's probably been the reason the fans have allowed it to happen," Mike Dillon said of his son's resume. "I think the fans are the reason we got the 3 back, and for him to be able to win races and be competitive, they've allowed it to happen."

Austin Dillon grew up, with his younger brother and Nationwide rookie, Ty, steeped in the heritage of a family number more emotionally connected by fans to Earnhardt. And while bringing the stylized digit -- with which Earnhardt won six championships at RCR -- back to Sprint Cup has been a dream for Dillon, he has been able to remove -- or at least conceal -- the emotion his elders at RCR are experiencing with greater frequency at each milestone this Speedweeks.

"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," crew chief Gil Martin said, "and 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."

And so it continues.

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