It goes without saying that the Daytona 500 is by far the biggest race in a stock car driver’s life. It is our biggest stage. This is the race that defines careers. I lived with the pressure for 17 years of being asked "when are you ever going to win the 500?" It didn’t matter that I had won 12 other times at Daytona in all other kinds of races, already, what only mattered was I hadn’t won THE one. twenty-five years ago those questions finally came to a halt. I had that final crown jewel I was missing in my very blessed career.
It was during the NASCAR Hall of Fame week that I made a point to stress to the media about how important the Daytona 500 is. Some superstar names in our sport and even some in the NASCAR Hall of Fame never won the Daytona 500. It took me 17 years to win mine. It took Dale Earnhardt Sr. 20 years to win his. Then you look at Richard Petty and the man won it SEVEN times. That’s the stuff of immortality to me.
I just have to say what I saw at Daytona Qualifying brought a tear to my eye. You have this twenty-three year old grandson of the car owner, who is putting the No. 3 car back on the track for the first time since that horrible day in 2001 and the boy goes and wins the pole.
Just think about what that does for our sport? Just think about what it does to all those Dale Sr. fans that to this day still wear his t-shirts or have the No. 3 decal on their vehicles? Just think about how a little bit more of car owner Richard Childress healed today from the devastating loss of his best friend?
I’ve been very vocal, even back in 2001, when fans were clamoring for the No. 3 to be retired that it was the wrong thing to do. The best way to honor Dale and quite honestly some of our biggest stars in the sport who came before Dale in the No. 3, is to have that number out there on the track, trying to win races and competing for championships.
I know there are still Nay-Sayers out there that are dead set against it. To that I can only say two things. First, get over it already because the No. 3 is back and second, get to know this young man behind the wheel first. I think he will change your position. He is fine young man who is well spoken, humble, grounded and accepts not only the challenge of being a NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie driver, but also doing it under the glaring microscope of driving such a hallowed number.
I say give the boy a chance and I bet you will be thrilled you did. He’s going to be a great asset and ambassador on and off the track for our sport. It was right to bring the No. 3 back. The timing was right because our sport is on a huge upswing.
We’re at one of those pivotal times in our sport. It’s a new generation in NASCAR. You have to give them credit for attempting to change the culture of the sport. 2014 will start a new way of how the pole winner is determined. It also marks a milestone for a new way the champion is determined. In between those bookends we have Jimmie Johnson racing history. We have a tweaked and better race car. We have a clear penalty process and on top of that, we have one heck of crop of fresh face rookies coming into our sport this year.
Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 DOW Chevrolet, qualifies for pole position for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
I just love the irony of this being a new day and a new era in our sport. I love it because back in 1998, young seven year old Austin Dillon stood in Victory Lane with Dale Earnhardt and got his picture made with Dale after winning the Daytona 500. Now here we are with this same young man, all of twenty-three years old winning the biggest pole of our biggest race in Dale’s old number. Seriously folks, Hollywood can’t even make this stuff up.
To be fair and Austin will tell you it’s not all him, but that he had a lot of help. Congratulations to Danny Lawrence who runs the Childress engine program. Not only did he win the pole with the No. 3 car, but the cat on the outside pole, Martin Truex Jr. in the Furniture Row car also had Childress steam under his hood.
Just think about what we’ve seen in the last two years of Daytona Speed Weeks? History was made in 2013 when rookie Danica Patrick became the first female stock car driver to win the pole position for the Daytona 500. The excitement that groundbreaking event generated was spectacular. It simply wasn’t contained to the racing world. It made headlines all over the world.
Now here we are again with something equally as exciting and touching. Just think how many more folks are going to attend and tune in to NASCAR on FOX next Sunday afternoon to see if this young man can pull off the unimaginable. Can you begin to comprehend what it would do for our sport to have that young man in Victory Lane for the Daytona 500 driving that number? I can’t because it just too big to fathom but it sure doesnât stop me from hoping to experience it.
You’ve always heard me say that NASCAR is powered by emotion. It truly is. Our drivers are emotional. Our fans are passionate and emotional and goodness knows there’s a broadcaster or two that gets fired up at times. It’s all about the passion. It’s about these type of moments in our sport at this particular time that can take our sport to a whole new level.
To be fair, we also have to remember that above it all, Austin is still a rookie. As I am fond of saying, rookies are a lot of fun to watch because they don’t know what they don’t know. My buddy Tony Stewart once said of Kyle Busch as a rookie "he’s out there like a dart with no feathers." Rookies make mistakes. It’s just reality.
NASCAR Sprint Car driver Austin Dillon hugs his grandfather Richard Childress after winning the pole.
That said, Austin does have some Sprint Cup experience under his belt. He has a great crew chief and pit crew. Remember too, this No. 3 bunch is Kevin Harvick’s No. 29 bunch from last year and they were pretty darn sporty all year long. The other incalculable asset that young man has will be in his ear — his grandfather Richard Childress.
Will it be easy? No. Is it a long shot? Yes. Can it be done? Go ask Trevor Bayne and see what he says. One of my Golden Rules of NASCAR is you never say never. Don’t assume just because he’s a rookie and because it’s our greatest race plus add in who he is driving for and the pressure the car number brings with it to the table that his young man can’t make history next Sunday afternoon in the Daytona 500.