Updated: 02/21/2014 7:55 AM
Created: 02/20/2014 2:05 PM KSTP.com
By: Nick Tabbert
Car #3 is back in front of the field at Daytona International Speedway. It was 13 years ago this week that the man who made that number famous - Dale Earnhardt - passed away after a crash in the Daytona 500. Now rookie Austin Dillon will pilot that car from the pole Sunday in the 56th running of the "Great American Race."
NASCAR racing is back in full swing this week with the season-opening Daytona 500 set for Sunday afternoon. On Thursday, teams secured their spot in the 43-car field by competing in two 150-mile races.
I spoke with Jordan Bianchi, writer for SBNation, about Dillon's qualifying effort and who he expects to see take the checkered flag Sunday.
The announcement was made last December that Dillon would return the 3 car to the Sprint Cup Series for the first time since 2001. Since then there has been a lot of discussion about whether or not it was appropriate to have a rookie drive the car that previously belonged to one of NASCAR's most famous drivers.
The car belongs to Richard Childress, who was a close friend of Earnhardt and who raced in the 3 when he was behind the wheel. Dillon is Childress' grandson.
Bianchi said Dillon's pole-winning qualifying run last Sunday answered a lot of those questions.
"It kind of drove it home that this is a special moment, he is the right driver, this is the right team at this race, and it's good for everybody involved in it and it's nice to have it back," Bianchi said. "There's a lot of positivity in a sport that for the last few months has had a lot of change and a lot of uncertainty."
I thought it was weird to see the 3 car in Victory Lane again following the pole run, and Bianchi agreed.
"It took a little getting used to but you saw the joy and the emotion that it brought to everyone, particularly Richard Childress who was Dale Earnhardt's close friend and car owner, and what it meant to him," Bianchi said. "It drove it home that this means something, this means something really larger than you can quantify."
It's one thing for Dillon to win the pole - actually it's not even that rare anymore, as Danica Patrick won it last year, Jimmie Johnson won it in 2002 and Mike Skinner won it in 1997 - but it's another to win the Daytona 500. How good are his chances? Bianchi and I agree that as long as you survive the "big one" and can be around at the end, anything can happen.
"I think Dillon has an excellent chance on Sunday," Bianchi said. "He knows how to run these races. He's going to have people to work with him which is very important because of the draft. Because he has a fast car he's not going to have a hard time finding a partner."
That's because drafting is so important at a superspeedway like Daytona. Cars run faster in packs, and having friends to help you move toward the front becomes increasing important as the end of the race nears.
It also leads to big crashes. On Wednesday, drivers Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth tangled on the front stretch and caused a big crash, forcing some drivers to go to backup cars.
Along with Dillon, Bianchi said there are four or five other drivers that head into this weekend as favorites to win the Daytona 500. Denny Hamlin, a winner in Thursday's Budweiser Dual and last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited winner, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 2004 Daytona 500 winner, Kevin Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 winner, and Jimmie Johnson, who won last year.
Bianchi said Johnson was under the radar for most of Speedweeks last season but survived engine trouble and early wrecks that collected a number of contenders.
"And then all of a sudden with about 30 laps to go you see that 48 car up there and he's leading this race, and that's what kind of race this is going to be," he said. "It's going to be an attrition. You're going to see a lot of wrecks. Last year we saw the Toyota cars have engine failures. It's going to be the thing where you need to survive. You need to put yourself in a position to be there at the end, and if you can do that, it's anybody's race."
I asked Bianchi who he thinks will win come Sunday. He's going with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has scored three second-place finishes in the past four Daytona 500s in addition of his 2004 victory.
"He's a patient racer, doesn't make mistakes. You don't see him get involved in a lot of mishaps. He works well with other drivers."
Personally, I'm going with Harvick, who seems to come from nowhere when the money is on the line. After moving to Stewart-Haas racing this past offseason, I expect him to start his season with a bang by winning his second Harley J. Earl trophy.
Coverage of the Daytona 500 starts Sunday at 12 p.m.