NASCAR

Spencer: Austin Dillon dazzles at Daytona testing in No. 3

Austin Dillon at Daytona, with the iconic No. 3 he's reprising.
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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.

It seemed like old times at Daytona International Speedway with the No. 3 Chevy on top of the speed chart.

However, it was the next generation of Richard Childress racer — Austin Dillon — securing the fastest speed of 195.108 mph during preseason testing on Friday.

For some drivers, carrying a number as iconic as Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s might be stressful. But after campaigning with the 3 throughout his career — and winning championships in both the Nationwide and truck series — Dillon is used to the attention.

“I’m honored to be in the 3,” Dillon said. “This is special, and walking into the Cup garage this week 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 added with the 3, obviously because it's coming back for the first time [to Sprint Cup] in a long time.

“But it's been here four years now. 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 the season started.”

Dillon started the day with his fellow competitors in NASCAR's annual safety meeting. When asked what he learned, Dillon joked about not showing up in the seminar's highlight reels.

The 23-year-old Rookie of the Year candidate was featured prominently for his flip in the No. 14 Chevy on the backstretch at Talladega Superspeedway and with Michael Annett in February at Daytona in the Nationwide Series race. Still, he complimented the sanctioning body for “using a lot of cool stuff to improve our safety and eliminate bad crashes.”

Despite growing up in the NASCAR garage in the shadow of his grandfather Richard Childress, Dillon reminds himself that he's “still really young.” But to no one's surprise, the freshman Cup drivers says he’s “had a blast.”

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“I feel like we've taken our time coming up through the Truck Series, the Nationwide Series and done what we needed to do to get experience,'' Dillon said. "I'm thankful for my grandfather, my dad (Mike Dillon, VP of competition) and everybody at RCR for letting me take the time.

“Not everybody has the opportunity to grow and get experience, so that's one great thing. I feel now we're going in the Cup series prepared. We have a great team with a lot of experience. I feel like we're ready for a good Cup season.”

Dillon will compete for rookie honors against one of the strongest classes in years. In addition to his fellow Nationwide Series graduates — Kyle Larson, Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman, Michael Annett and Cole Whitt — he also could be contending against Alex Bowman.

But Dillon has greater expectations ahead than just the rookie title. He would like to be the first competitor to earn the Triple Crown — championships in each of NASCAR’s top three series.

“Yeah, it's very special,” Dillon said. “Any time you can make a mark in our sport that has such a great history behind it, it's awesome.

“The cool thing is we had tough seasons. We battled out for the championships all the way down the wire, especially last year with (second-place NNS finisher) Sam Hornish. I'll never forget those experiences, and hopefully be able to take them and use them in this series.”

NOT WASTING TIME

While there's been speculation that NASCAR will change the procedure for qualifying in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014, VP Robin Pemberton said on Friday the rules for the Daytona 500 lineup will remain the same.

IT ADDS UP

Where did your favorite driver finish in the 2013 final standings?

“What comes into play is the fact that Daytona's format has always been a one off and a great format,” Pemberton said. “We've got the duels on Thursday, and that's been a pressure-packed race for the teams. Especially now with the lack of lock-ins.

"You have to race in. This place stands on its own right now. They have qualifying races which nobody else has. They've been a one up on everybody for the most part.”

While the front row remains locked in for the Daytona 500 based on single-car qualifying runs, the next 28 drivers will be set based on the Budweiser Duels — two 150-mile races — regardless of where the team finished in 2013 points. Positions 31-37 will be lined up according to their qualifying times, and the final six based on last year’s points (including one past champion’s provisional if necessary).

Although a specific plan has not been devised for the Nationwide or truck series, Pemberton confirmed there would not be single-car qualifying for the support tours starting with Daytona.

“There are still some details we’re working on and trying to finalize all of those things,” Pemberton said.

NUMBERS GAME

7 — Drivers drafted during testing at Daytona: Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the first group and then rookies Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex in the last five minutes of the test.

2 — Cars for Phoenix Racing at the test. Justin Allgaier shook down the No. 51 while former Sprint Cup champion Bobby Labonte ran laps in the No. 52 Chevy. Jimmy Elledge is on board as Labonte's crew chief.

WINNING WAYS

Check out all the 2013 Sprint Cup race winners. SEE THEM ALL

8:16 — Time available to teams on the track Friday.

106 — Laps run during testing by Kahne — the most of any of the Cup competitors.

SAY WHAT?

Kyle Busch believes Sam Hornish will be “a great addition” to Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide Series effort. Hornish is scheduled to run seven races in the No. 54 NNS Toyota.

“It's going to really help our program out, I believe,” Busch said. “I liked Owen Kelly; he was great last year driving for us. Drew Herring was great driving for us last year. But just a little bit of inexperience on their parts maybe cost us a few points here or there, but also no doubt I cost myself a few points, as well.

"At the end of the deal, we missed the championship by one point. I feel like Sam Hornish is a contender each and every week. He's been a guy that can run up front. He's proven himself the last few years in the Nationwide competition, that he's a force to be reckoned with week in, week out for those victories.

"I think that he could be a huge addition to our team, and it brings along some consistency, as well, too, with just myself and he behind the wheel and having Adam (crew chief Stevens) not have driver of the week per se in the car and trying to figure out different drivers.”

Tagged: Austin Dillon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett

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