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Austin Dillon drives the No. 3 to the Daytona 500 pole

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/16/17/17/U7CWe.Em.138.jpeg|419
    Phelan M. Ebenhack - AP
    Austin Dillon (3) drives past No. 3 flags flying in Turn 4 during qualifying for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. Dillon won the pole position for the race. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/16/21/03/R1Pqp.Em.138.jpeg|205
    Tom Pennington - Getty Images
    Austin Dillon stands in the garage area after earning the pole position in Sunday's qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/16/17/02/xVXUq.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Phelan M. Ebenhack - AP
    Austin Dillon (3) drives through Turn 4 during qualifying for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. Dillon won the pole position for the Daytona 500.(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
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    Terry Renna - AP
    Austin Dillon removes his helmet after his qualifying run for the Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. Dillon won the pole position for the race. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. The No. 3 has found its way to Victory Lane at Daytona again.

It’s a significant milestone in NASCAR, even if it’s for winning a pole rather than a race.

And it marks a grand debut for rookie Austin Dillon, who is piloting the No. 3 for his grandfather and team owner, Richard Childress.

“This is pretty awesome right here,” said Dillon after the the 49-car qualifying session Sunday.

“You just try to stay focused. Everyone just wants to see this number perform and that’s what my goals are – to stay focused. It’s hard to celebrate because I know it’s just qualifying, but it’s great for these guys on the team.

“As (crew chief Gil Martin) said, ‘You never know when you’ll be in this position again.’ 

Before Sunday, the No. 3’s last trip to Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway in a Cup series points race was Dale Earnhardt’s win in the Daytona 500 to kick off the 1998 season.

After Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500, Childress mothballed the No. 3, even though he used it recently for his Nationwide and Trucks series teams.

With the full-time debut of Dillon this season in the Cup series, Childress announced during December he would bring back the No. 3.

Dillon’s lap speed of 196.019 mph eclipsed that of Martin Truex Jr. (195.852 mph), who will start alongside Dillon on the front row.

“Yeah, front row that is what we were here for,” said Truex, in his first season driving for Furniture Row Racing. “Obviously, I can’t say enough about this team. What a great job – I think we have got about seven miles on this car.

“I’m a pretty lucky guy to get to hold the wheel. (Earnhardt-Childress Racing) engines on the front row – we are lucky to have them under the hood and just have to thank everyone for their hard work.

“I’m really excited about the rest of Speedweeks.”

This is fourth time the No. 3 car has won the Daytona 500 pole. The others were driven by Buddy Baker (1969), Ricky Rudd (1983), Earnhardt (1996).

“I just didn’t want to mess it up,” Dillon said. “I knew we had a fast car when we came down here (for January testing) and we brought it back.”

Childress stood atop Dillon’s car hauler in the garage during qualifying. When the No. 3 bolted to the top position on the scoring pylon, he pumped his fist.

“I couldn’t be more proud for Austin and Gil and all the people who worked so hard over the winter to come down here and run good,” Childress said.

“We wanted to put on a good show with the No. 3.”

Dillon and Truex are the only drivers whose positions are locked in for next Sunday’s 500. The remainder of the starting lineup will be set based on Thursday night’s two 150-mile qualifying races.

Truex’s position on the front row came as a surprise only because his team elected not to participate in January testing.

Teams with ECR engines also finished first, second and third in last month’s 24-hour race at Daytona.

“It’s always been about the details, and it’s still that way today,” said Danny Lawrence, trackside manager for ECR engines.

“On the sentimental side, I’ve really been pretty good about this whole No. 3 thing, but when I saw that car hit the track today, it kind of tore me up a little bit.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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