DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's back -- and in a big way.
With Austin Dillon behind the wheel, the No. 3 Chevrolet made a triumphant return to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing during Sunday's time trials for the 56th Daytona 500.
Shrugging off the pressure of driving a car he knew could be a Coors Light Pole winner, Dillon toured 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in 45.914 seconds (196.019 mph), locking the No. 3 into the top starting spot in the number's first appearance in the Cup series since Dale Earnhardt died after a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
The Coors Light Pole Award was Dillon's first in 14 attempts and proved the ideal kickoff to his first full-time season in Sprint Cup racing.
Dillon, 23, edged second-place qualifier Martin Truex Jr. (195.852 mph) for the top starting spot, but both drivers are locked into the front row for the Great American Race and will lead their respective fields to green in Thursday night's Budweiser Duel at Daytona 150-lap qualifying races.
Both Dillon's No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet and Truex's No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy featured Earnhardt Childress Racing power under the hood. The front-row sweep was the perfect present for chief engine builder Danny Lawrence, who celebrated a birthday Sunday.
"We got him a 1-2 start at Daytona, so this is pretty awesome," Dillon said after clinching the pole. "You just try and stay focused, because everyone wants to see this number perform well. That's what my goals are -- to stay focused.
"It's hard to celebrate, because I know this is just qualifying, but it's great for (the team). You never know the next time you'll be standing in this position again. So it's awesome; just want to thank our family back home at RCR. They've done such a good job -- fab shop, engine shop, everybody, my guys.
"It's all them. I hoped I didn't mess it up. We knew we had a fast car, and we brought it back, so it's good."
After Clint Bowyer completed his two-lap run as the 49th and final driver to make an attempt, team owner Richard Childress, Dillon's grandfather, raised a clenched right fist in triumph. Both Childress and Dillon were in Victory Lane when Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 for the only time in 1998.
"We wanted to put on a good show with the 3, and I couldn't be prouder of everybody," Childress said. "(The pressure) is always on when you've got grandsons racing."
Roush Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards qualified third and fourth, respectively, and will start on the outside of the front row in their respective Duels, which will determine the starting order of positions 3 through 32 in the Daytona 500.
Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski were fifth and sixth fastest during the time trials.
For the first three quarters of the session, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the upper hand.
The first driver to make a qualifying attempt, Earnhardt ran 195.211 mph on his money lap -- and waited. One by one, his rivals fired and fell back, until Biffle, the 32nd driver to post a time, cracked the 46-second mark and knocked Earnhardt off the provisional pole.
Earnhardt Jr., the 2004 Daytona 500 winner, wound up seventh.