Adding To A Legacy
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on February 16, 2014 | 7:38 P.M. EST
In its first race back in the Sprint Cup Series in 13 years, the No. 3 car won the pole for the Daytona 500. (Photo: Jeff Wackerlin)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - They cheered the car’s return to the top of Daytona International Speedway’s scoring pylon. It was part celebration, part catharsis.
A number that means so much to so many flew on the shoulders of a team that understands its responsibility and was guided by a youngster whose second home was the race shop.
No one ran faster than Austin Dillon and the No. 3 car Sunday. When the command is given to fire engines for next week’s Daytona 500, Dillon’s car will start on the pole after a lap of 196.019 mph.
Admittedly, this is not a story everyone likes. There are those who say the No. 3 should rest in peace with Dale Earnhardt. He made the number famous and no one else in NASCAR should use it, they say.
It’s not their decision, though.
It is Richard Childress’ decision. After receiving the Earnhardt family’s approval, Childress decided to bring the number back.
That doesn’t mean the move was easy for everyone.
Danny Lawrence, trackside manager for ECR Engines, admits he had “mixed emotions.” He was a member of Earnhardt’s crew. Lawrence helped buckle Earnhardt in each race - the last crew member to have contact with Earnhardt before Earnhardt pulled on to the track.
Lawrence performed the same task before the 2001 Daytona 500.
“It’s not that I wasn’t sold on it, it’s just that I’m still so dedicated to Dale Earnhardt that the last time I was here (with Earnhardt) was so emotional,’’ Lawrence said of Earnhardt’s death after a last-lap crash in that race 13 years ago. “If anybody was going to do it, I would want it to be Austin.’’
Although Dillon has used that number for years in other racing series, many view him as a caretaker of the No. 3. Same for his team. They understand.
“The No. 3 is what our company about,’’ crew chief Gil Martin said. “The heritage of that No. 3 is something that we’ve got to protect. We don’t take that job lightly.’’
It was evident early. Dillon was fast in testing last month and fast this week, making him a favorite for the pole. That doesn’t mean that Saturday’s effort was a breeze.
Danny “Chocolate” Myers, who also was a member of Earnhardt’s crew, couldn’t contain his excitement listening to qualifying on the radio as he drove from North Carolina to Daytona.
“It was the longest trip of my life,’’ Myers said from Victory Lane as he watched Dillon’s team celebrate.
It was a long trip for the car’s 23-year-old driver.
Sure, he is Childress’ grandson. He still had to earn the right race Pop Pop's cars.
Long before that, though, he had to pay his dues.
While Childress recalls team members pushing Dillon and his younger brother Ty around the shop on creepers, one of Dillon’s earliest memories at the shop was working on a the grounds crew.
Too young to use a mower, he was given a weed trimmer and told to take care of a hill, hidden behind one of the shops at the RCR campus. Untamed monkey grass was knee-high on the youngster, who was about 12 years old at the time. He finished the job and says no one has done it since.
Sometimes it’s just easier to keep a kid busy with various odd jobs.
For all that Dillon has done, including championships in the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series, the memory that flashes before Dillon’s father, Mike, is not of a racecar driver, but a kid.
One of those memories is the time Dillon helped turn a double play during a Little League World Series game.
“It made the ESPN highlights, top 10,’’ Mike Dillon said. “I went home and watched that. I’ve still got that on tape today and I still watch it.’’
More than a decade later, there’s still a lot of kid in Austin Dillon. He’s been racing a dirt car this week at a local track and was tired so he slept until about 12:30 p.m. Sunday and watched part of the movie “Broken City” before putting on his uniform to qualify.
Still, he’s old enough for others to look up to.
Eighteen-year-old Ford Martin, son of Gil Martin, is five years younger than Dillon. They both were raised at the shop and race track.
“I look at Austin as the big brother I never had,’’ Ford Martin said. “He gives me advice on life lessons.”
“Work hard,’’ Ford Martin said. “Keep your word. When you set your goals on something, don’t let anything get in the way of stopping you.’’
Nothing stopped Dillon on Sunday.
“You never dream it being this good,’’ Childress said. “It was really special to put the No. 3 up on the board. Now we’ve got a bigger job ahead of us.’’