DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.–It’s not that Austin Dillon needed to call more attention to himself.
Face it, the reappearance of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, with Dillon behind the wheel, was enough to turn heads when NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers finally took to the track Friday at Daytona International Speedway after rain washed out Thursday’s scheduled first day of Preseason Thunder testing.
But Dillon also turned heads by turning chart-topping laps in the No. 3, whose last competitive appearance at Daytona–or at any other Cup track, for that matter–ended in the last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500 that took the life of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.
On Friday, Dillon maintained a stranglehold on the top rung of the speed sheet. By 5:30 p.m. he had posted fastest lap at 195.109 mph. Second fastest at the time was Brian Scott at 193.966 mph.
Yes, Dillon, had run the No. 3 in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, winning a championship in each division. But the reemergence of the No. 3 in the Cup Series, with the number in essence held in trust for Dillon by grandfather Richard Childress, was certain to attract attention and, in some quarters, no small measure of controversy.
To Dillon, though, the step up in class as a full-time participant in NASCAR’s premier division was a bigger source of pressure than the stylized number on his car.
“I’m honored to be in the 3,” Dillon said during a television interview Friday. “This is special, and walking into this garage this weekend is pretty cool. There are so many heroes in this garage for me, and just being in this garage is going to be pressure.
“There’s some more added with the 3, obviously, because it’s coming back (to Cup racing) for the first time in a long time. But it’s been here four years now (in Nationwide and Trucks). And I’m comfortable when I walk in the garage and jump in the seat. It’s been fun so far–just excited about getting this season started.”
Starting was a problem on Friday, as rain persisted throughout the morning. At 12:45 p.m. Greg Biffle finally led the parade onto the racing surface, and ultimately, 40 different cars turned laps at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
NASCAR extended the test session to 9 p.m. Friday, and Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton felt that was enough time to test the efficacy of the one change to the Gen-6 race car package from last year, an extra half-inch added to the height of the rear spoiler.
“With a year under our belt with the Gen-6 car, it’s pretty straightforward,” Pemberton said during a late-afternoon visit to the Daytona media center. “Had a small spoiler change, and basically it’s a comfortable zone for the teams to be into.
“So, really, this test is all about the teams and those guys working on their setups and their engine packages and things of that nature. So far, speeds look to be what we expected. We’ll see what happens when they draft a little bit later.”
STATUS QUO FOR DAYTONA CUP QUALIFYING
Though sweeping changes are expected for qualifying formats in all three of NASCAR’s top series, Pemberton said the procedure for the Daytona 500 would remain the same as last year, with the top two starting spots determined on pole day and the next 28 in the Budweiser Duel qualifying races the following Thursday night.
Pemberton did allow that there will no longer be single-car qualifying for any races in the Nationwide and Truck Series, but didn’t elaborate beyond that. Qualifying changes for all three series will be announced later this month.