DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- He put the hammer down and somehow avoided the big wreck at the end. He made not one, but two impressive saves where his dirt-track background paid dividends -- though he also may have inadvertently rattled a few cages en route to a top-10 finish.
The No. 3's return to NASCAR's top level was an adventure, and ultimately deemed a success by the Richard Childress Racing team that brought it back to the premier series for the first time since Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash at Daytona International Speedway 13 years ago. Austin Dillon started on the pole, led exactly one lap -- the first one -- and used a few evasive maneuvers Sunday to drive his way to a ninth-place result in the Daytona 500.
The 23-year-old rookie weathered a pair of scrapes, one where he made contact with fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup Series freshman Kyle Larson, and another where he banged into teammate Ryan Newman. But he also kept it straight in escaping a big crash involving Danica Patrick, somehow saved it after a big fishtail in Turn 2, and at the end took advantage of a fast-moving bottom line to sail past the last-lap accident and into the top 10.
As far as the No. 3 team was concerned, it was mission accomplished.
"Yeah, it is a success," Dillon said. "I was a little disappointed I got my teammate there, but everything happened so quick, and I got into his rear bumper and just turned him. That was unfortunate. But proud of my guys. ? We've just got to build on this. Got a lot to go. The yellow stripes were out there tonight, you could tell. I wasn't getting much help tonight out there. It's just, you're kind of at the mercy of those guys around you. I definitely felt the mercy of those yellow stripes."
Dillon led the opening lap, marking the first time the No. 3 has paced a circuit in the Daytona 500 since Earnhardt led Lap 183 in his final race here 13 years ago. It was a pressure-filled week for the grandson of team owner Childress, who used the No. 3 during championship campaigns in the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series, and was the biggest proponent of bringing the number -- which had been his granddad's before it had been Earnhardt's -- with him up to the Sprint Cup Series.
Given all that, and the fishbowl of attention that had encompassed the No. 3 team since winning the pole a week earlier, Dillon and his crew seemed more than pleased with the final result.
"That was great. He learned a lot tonight," crew chief Gil Martin said. "It looked like we were in a couple of altercations, but one of them was an accordion thing, and one of them was in the middle of the corner down there -- you run out of room in this place. All in all, I think he did a great job. Maybe we were a little too conservative tonight. But in the big picture, coming out of here with a top 10 ? all in all, we couldn't have had a better Speedweeks. If somebody had written the script for us before we came down here in January, one: I would have taken it, and two: I wouldn't have believed it."
Dillon's long day into night, separated by a six-hour rain delay, wasn't without incident. Shortly before the midway point Dillon nipped the back end of Larson's car when the two vehicles were in pack traffic. "My fault. I will not let that happen again," spotter Andy Houston told his driver over the radio, while Dillon chalked it up to tight racing. Later Dillon made contact with Newman when one line of cars stacked up in the draft. "You were all jammed up," Houston told him. "Nothing you could do there."
He did plenty in a pair of saves that kept his hopes of a strong finish intact. Dillon had to get creative when his car got loose in Turn 2, going "lock to lock" -- as far as the wheel will turn in both directions -- to keep the vehicle straight. Earlier he squirted through a 13-car pileup, taking only minor damage in an accident that sent Danica Patrick hard into the wall. "A little Volusia County (Speedway) dirt racing saved you, Austin," Childress told him over the radio.
"He got sideways backward and just kept driving," said Mike Dillon, Austin's father and RCR's general manager. "That was awesome. That was good driving. You've got to keep driving them when you wreck, and you can't give up. He drove himself back out of that one, where he could have backed it into the fence."
At the end, with a six-car wreck unfolding around him, Dillon was able to find enough space to get to the finish relatively unscathed.
"I felt I was a pinball here for a while. Glad we came out in the top 10," he said. And now it's on to Phoenix, where the No. 3 team hopes Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Daytona 500 victory will steal much of the spotlight, allowing them to be just another program helping a rookie driver find his footing at the sport's top level.
"I hope so," Martin said. "There's still going to be some. Each week it's going to linger on. With Junior winning tonight, that will take a lot of pressure off Austin, because everybody's going to be on Junior, and that's going to be off Austin. We want to kind of fade back over like this team's accustomed to. Just fade right off so nobody's paying attention to what we're doing, click some finishes off, and get him some experience."
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