There was perhaps no better indicator the 2014 NASCAR season is not far off.
Not long after Sprint Cup Series drivers finally made their way onto the track Friday at Daytona International Speedway after a day-and-a-half of rain, the No. 3 bolted to the top of the speed chart.
It served as a stark reminder the next NASCAR season is just around the corner and foreshadowed what will be one of the season’s most followed storylines – the return of the No. 3 to Cup competition for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr., who won six of his seven championships driving the car.
Rookie Austin Dillon, who will drive the No. 3 as he begins his Cup career, certainly made a strong accounting of himself, holding the fastest lap (194.380 mph) of the 40 drivers that participated as the test was extended into the evening.
Nationwide Series teams begin a two-day test Saturday.
“This is special and walking into this Cup garage this weekend is pretty cool,” said Dillon, who has won championships in the Truck and Nationwide series. “There are so many heroes in this garage for me, and just being in this garage is going to be pressure.
“There’s some more pressure added with the No. 3, obviously, because it’s coming back for the first time in a long time. I’m comfortable when I walk in the garage and jump in the seat.
“It’s been fun so far. Just excited about getting this season started.”
Although the Cup test was much-abbreviated, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton, said he believed there was enough time to evaluate the one significant rule change for Cup teams at Daytona this season – a slightly larger rear spoiler.
“The main thing will be the drafting runs,” Pemberton said. “We’ll see what happens, how many they can get together if they want to – it’s meant to be drafting practice for the most part for the latter part of the day.
“I think we’ll get a good snapshot of it.”
Pemberton said there had been a lot of lobbying by some teams throughout the day Friday to add test time, by either allowing a test at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway or returning to Daytona next week.
NASCAR shot them all down.
“I think we’ve got enough track time. I really do,” Pemberton said. “Like I said, when you have as few changes as we’ve had, I think the teams have a pretty good handle on it.”
Dillon’s No. 3 car wasn’t the only blast from NASCAR’s past during Friday’s test session.
Former Cup champion-turned-TV analyst for ESPN, Rusty Wallace, turned several laps in Team Penske’s No. 2 Ford, usually driven by Brad Keselowski.
Penske provided Wallace the opportunity in honor of the 25th anniversary of his only series championship in 1989 and the upcoming 40th anniversary of Miller Lite beer, which served as Wallace’s sponsor during his career at Penske.
“I just want to thank everyone that made this happen,” Wallace said. “I really wanted to get back into the car and get a good feel of this Gen-6 car here at Daytona.
“Not only did they let me run a couple of times, but they let me run most of the day today and the car is fantastic. It is real smooth and nice and the crew was so kind. I hope I helped them out some.”
Keselowski said Wallace could test for him any time he liked so long as didn’t “take my paycheck.”
“I like to think that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for guys like Rusty and what he has done for the No. 2 team,” Keselowski said. “It is our way of showing respect back.
“That is so important. There are a lot of people that make this program possible, and Rusty is certainly one that was a large part of it.”