It didn’t take long for the Sprint Cup Series to realize that the No. 3 was back when on Sunday Austin Dillon put the iconic number on the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500. It was the first time that No. 3 had been back on the track since Dale Earnhardt Sr. lost his life in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Richard Childress, who fielded the black No.3 Chevrolet for six of Earnhardt’s seven Cup titles, has kept the number since the tragic accident but has not raced it in the Sprint Cup Series. When his grandson Austin began his career, he asked to use the number as he made his way up through the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series. Now, with the blessing of the Earnhardt family, Childress and Dillon bring the number back and it could not have been a better start to the season as the Daytona pole is the only one that you actually get to enjoy for an entire week as the race is not until next Sunday.
While Dillon is locked in on the pole with his qualifying run, the only other driver that has a guaranteed spot is Martin Truex Jr., who finished second during Sunday’s qualifying run. Truex, in his first race driving for Furniture Row Racing, had something in common with the pole winner. Both cars on the front row were using Earnhardt Childress engines.
The rest of the field, even though the majority of drivers are locked in, will not know their starting position until after the Duel at Daytona, two 150-mile qualifying races to be held on Thursday. The cars earning odd-numbered positions from qualifying on Sunday will race in the first Duel Race and the even-numbered positions from Sunday will take the green flag in the second Duel.
The highest 15 finishers in each of the Duel races with the exception of the two drivers that are already locked in on the front row will earn a spot in the race and will fill out positions 3 to 32. The top- 15 finishers in the first Duel will line up on the inside row behind Dillon’s pole position and will be the odd-numbered positions. The top-15 finishers in the second Duel will line up behind Truex on the outside and will fill the evennumbered positions.
Positions 33 to 36 will go to the four fastest cars from Sunday’s qualifying that have not already earned a spot in the field by their Duel finish. The next six positions, 37 to 42 will be provisional positions and they will be awarded to the six highest cars in the final 2013 owner’s points that did not qualify with their Duel finish.
The 43rd and final starting position will go to any car owner who has the most recent eligible past NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who did not make the field by any other method. To be eligible for this final spot, the driver had to have competed in the 2013 Sprint Cup season.
This final spot could be the toughest to grab as there are four past Sprint Cup champions that are attempting to qualify for the race and all four are not guaranteed a spot. Kurt Busch, Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart are all past champions in the sport and are not locked in by either their speed or owner’s points. If all four fail to make the race, Stewart would get the provisional as he is the most recent, winning his latest title in 2011. Next in line would be Busch in 2004, Bobby Labonte in 2000 with brother Terry winning his second of two titles in 1996.
A total of 49 drivers will be attempting to qualify for the 43 starting spots and as you can see it is a week-long process that will keep the emotions running high until the checkered flag waves on the second Duel. It’s the most prestigious starting grid in all of Sprint Cup racing and one that definitely has to be earned.
The Daytona 500 begins at 1 p.m. on Sunday and will air on Fox.