Martin Truex Jr., in his first season with one-car team Furniture Row Racing, will start second
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The No. 3 is No. 1 again.
The iconic number made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt is back in NASCAR's premier series and it's on the pole for the 56th Daytona 500.
Austin Dillon, driving for his grandfather Richard Childress — who helped lead Earnhardt to six of his seven NASCAR Cup championships — ripped off a fast lap of 196.019 mph Sunday.
The return of the number — last seen here at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 18, 2001 when Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500 — has left NASCAR's fan base divided.
"I feel like our engines have been really good since we've been here (at Daytona). … I just had to get my shifts. And I knew that hopefully I could hold the wheel straight for two laps," Dillon told Fox after his lap.
"This is awesome. It's all for our guys," said Dillon, who called over engine builder Danny Lawrence as he celebrated in the garage. "(It's his birthday)…engine builder. It's awesome for him."
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Dillon, 23, who won the 2011 trucks title and the 2013 Nationwide title, is moving up full-time into Cup this year at Richard Childress Racing.
"I couldn't be more proud of Austin. We wanted to come down here and put on a good show with the 3," Childress told Fox.
Earnhardt won 67 races and the 1998 Daytona 500 driving the car number, along with the aforementioned six titles.
Many fans of the iconic driver wanted to see the number retired to honor him. Others believe having the number active on the track honors the legacy left by one of NASCAR's brashest, biggest talents. Childress has owned the number and decided this was the year to return it after refusing to run it since 2001.
"I'm proud of Austin and the whole team at RCR," Mike Dillon, Austin's dad, told Fox after his son's qualifying run.
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The No. 3 has been on the pole for the 500 three other times: In 1969 with Buddy Baker; in 1983 with Ricky Rudd; and in 1996 with Earnhardt.
Martin Truex Jr. will start on the outside in his first race with new team Furniture Row Racing as Chevrolet swept the front row. The rest of the 43-car field will be set with the Budweiser Duel races on Thursday night (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1).
Danica Patrick, who made history by becoming the first woman to win the pole for the Great American Race last year, turned a fast lap of 194.38 mph. She held the outside pole position for a while, but eventually was bumped down the grid.
Patrick already knew she had to start from the rear of the field for Thursday's Budweiser Duel and the Feb. 23 Daytona 500 as a penalty for having to replace an engine during Saturday's practice. So even if she had repeated her 2013 feat, the No. 10 Chevrolet still would have gone to the back of the pack.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went out first, clocked a 195.211 mph lap. He held the pole until Greg Biffle went out and clocked a 45.961-second lap at 195.818 mph more than halfway through the session.
"Hopefully that'll hold up," said Biffle, who hugged his car after climbing out. He cited the offseason work of the Roush Fenway Racing crew in looking for more speed after a disappointing 2013 for the team. Dillon was too good.
Tony Stewart, who hasn't won the Daytona 500, was the 32nd car to go out on a clear day with temperatures in the mid-60s. He turned a lap of 193.365 mph. He also has to start at the back of the field Sunday thanks to an engine change after Saturday's practice.
PHOTOS: Daytona 500 pole qualifying