DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- During Sunday's rain delay, Austin Dillon considered the thought about building a Slip 'N Slide on the frontstretch at Daytona International Speedway.
Instead, he stayed dry, waited It out for more than six hours, and came back to finish ninth -- the best effort by a rookie in the 56th Daytona 500 -- despite being involved in two crashes less than 20 laps apart. Better yet, he heralded the return of Dale Earnhardt's famous No. 3 on a night in which Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race for the second time.
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It wasn't pretty, by any means. Dillon started from the pole position, fell far behind early, worked back into contention, then was involved in two multicar crashes in the final 55 laps.
"That's what this year is about -- experience, trying to finish races and getting better each week," Dillon said, "We have a long year ahead of us, I'd like to use some of this momentum going forward. I know it's going to be a long, tough year, and hopefully we'll be there at the end of these races and try to learn something."
On Lap 145, Dillon was one of 13 drivers involved in a pileup on the frontstretch that eliminated cars driven by Danica Patrick and Michael Waltrip and damaged others. Dillon, who ran into the back of Richard Childress Racing teammate Ryan Newman's car, emerged relatively unscathed and near the top 10.
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"His rear bumper cover was off," Dillon said. "I barely touched him. It turned him to the left quick. I definitely didn't want to do that."
Less than 20 laps later, Dillon spun fellow rookie Kyle Larson, but remained in contention.
"I think the yellow stripe on the bumper (signifying a rookie) showed a little bit tonight, but we made it through it," Dillon said. "It was fun. I had a blast. The car was fast."
Dillon's grandfather, Richard Childress, was Earnhardt Sr.'s longtime car owner. He owns the rights to the No. 3 and its stylized logo. When he brought it back into circulation in 2009 in the Camping World Truck Series, he faced criticism from Earnhardt's fans, even though Earnhardt Jr. has repeated his approval and support of the number's return to NASCAR's top level, 13 years after his father was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
"It's very awesome," Dillon said. "Junior has been so supportive of me bringing back the 3. I've gone to him for a lot of advice lately. I can't thank him enough. He's been awesome to me. It made this whole transition a whole lot easier. If we didn't have him on board, it would have definitely been tough to do this."
Nothing was tough at the end of a long day for Earnhardt and Dillon.
"I thought about holding up three fingers as I was driving down the frontstretch, but I didn't want to bring too much attention to that," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It felt so comfortable all week for that number to be back. I'm so happy for Austin. He appreciates the history of the number. I had not thought about it once all week because it just felt so right."
Said Dillon: "I want to thank him and congratulate him. That was an awesome race. … For me, he's been a little bit of a bigger brother right now. It's been pretty cool."
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