The rest of the field is set Thursday through a pair of qualifying races, but Childress and the ECR engines are strong: They had five cars in the top 12 on Sunday.
Childress knew he had a shot at the pole, if not with Dillon then from another one of his four Richard Childress Racing entries. All were fast in January testing, and again in two Saturday practice sessions.
But it was Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., the first driver to make his qualifying attempt, who set the pace early and held down the provisional pole for most of the session. RCR drivers Brian Scott and Paul Menard failed to bump Earnhardt, and it was surprisingly Ford driver Greg Biffle who finally did it as the 33rd driver to take his turn.
Ryan Newman then took his shot for RCR and missed, and Dillon was the next driver out. He and crew chief Gil Martin knew the spotlight was on the No. 3, and stayed focused on the task at hand, even as Childress seemed to be on pins and needles.
"You try to keep the blinders on," Dillon said of the pressure to win the pole. "For me, it was hitting those shifts, putting in a good line. The funny thing is, there is a build-up to it, and my grandfather, me and Gil said, 'Calm down, you're nervous!' He said, 'I'm not nervous. I'm concerned.'
"So now he doesn't have to be concerned. We're on the pole, and things can be a little bit calm."
Childress celebrated by pumping his fist in the air. He won't be so reserved next week, admitting if Dillon pulls off a win, he'll celebrate in a far different way.
"The 3 is special to all of us; the family, the Earnhardt family, to every one of us," he said. "But I think it's special because Austin, our family is in the car. The emotion will fly if the 3 rolls in there on Sunday. I won't hold it back, I promise."