By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Cynics and conspiracy theorists doubtless will have a field day with this year's Daytona 500 qualifying.
After all, the best potential storyline of the weekend played out as though it had been perfectly scripted.
But, no, don't expect any major exposes of Austin Dillon's pole-winning run in Sunday's Daytona 500 qualifying. The historic return of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing actually was part of a larger story, namely the excellent offseason work of RCR and its affiliated teams.
Martin Truex Jr., with an RCR chassis and engine, qualified second, 39 thousandths of a second behind Dillon. RCR driver Ryan Newman, in his first Daytona 500 time trail for the organization, ran fifth. Paul Menard qualified 10th, Brian Scott 12th and Casey Mears 16th.
The RCR cars were fast in Preseason Thunder testing, and they were fast again this week. Clearly, the symbiotic relationship with customer organizations such as Furniture Row, Germain Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing has added to the critical mass of RCR's efforts.
"We've been doing a lot of work with our technical partners, and that just makes us all stronger," team owner Richard Childress told reporters after the qualifying session.
Childress approaches the 2014 season with justifiable optimism. As engine builder Danny Lawrence put it, "We're very prepared and ready to go."
Yes, Dillon's pole run is a great story.
But a conspiracy?
So move along now ... nothing to see here.
---After a six-month rehabilitation, Tony Stewart made his return to Sprint Cup competition this weekend, and had no issues with his titanium-reinforced leg. He was fast all weekend -- with the exception of getting through the metal detector at the airport.
---Many drivers told reporters that the racing was somewhat out of control during the Sprint Unlimited -- a statement reinforced by drivers telling this to reporters well before the race had concluded.
---The big takeaway from the Sprint Unlimited? Denny Hamlin's back. Not as in "his back" -- his back is healed. We mean's he's BACK, as in ... never mind, this has devolved into an Abbott & Costello routine.
---And congratulations to young Austin Dillon, who claimed the Daytona 500 pole Sunday in the No. 3 car. The pole set off a glut of conspiracy theories on social media, some so far-fetched that even Oliver Stone was overheard saying "WOW -- this is, like, WAY out there."
(Follow @nascarcasm on Twitter and also on FOXsports.com. His unique views on NASCAR are his own -- but chances are you already knew that.)
2: Number of Sprint Unlimited victories for Denny Hamlin, who dominated Saturday night's race. In 2005, Hamlin earned a surprise entry for the 2006 version of the Unlimited after winning a pole at Phoenix International Raceway in his sixth attempt at qualifying for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota then won the 2006 Unlimited as a Cup rookie.
7: The start time for Thursday night's Budweiser Duel at Daytona, the two 150-mile qualifying races that will solidify the starting lineup for the Feb. 23 Daytona 500. For the first time, the Duel races will be run under the lights.
9: The number of former Daytona 500 winners who entered this year's edition of NASCAR's most prestigious race. It's a short list that includes Jeff Gordon (1997, 1999, 2005); Michael Waltrip (2001, 2003); Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2004); Jimmie Johnson (2006, 2013); Kevin Harvick (2007); Ryan Newman (2008); Matt Kenseth (2009, 2012); Jamie McMurray (2010); and Trevor Bayne (2011).
17: The number of years between Daytona 500 poles for the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. The late Dale Earnhardt won his only pole for the Great American Race in 1996, After Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 running of the event, the No. 3 remained inactive in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series until Childress' grandson, Austin Dillon, began his first full season in the series with a Daytona 500 pole.