Dale Earnhardt Jr. a popular winner

— -- DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Austin Dillon stood by the No. 3 Chevrolet that has created such a stir the past week, trying to put into words what his ninth-place finish in Sunday's Daytona 500 meant, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove by with team owner Rick Hendrick sitting in the driver's side window.

"It's very cool for Dale Jr.,'' Dillon said of Earnhardt, who finally won the 500 again 10 years after winning it for the first time. "It's awesome to have the 3 back and the 88 win the race.''

There was something very poetic about the moment, that on the night the famed No. 3 made its return with a top-10 finish, the driver that made the moment possible won.

Were it not for Junior giving his blessing, RCR owner Richard Childress likely wouldn't have put his grandson in a number that hadn't been on the track in NASCAR's premier series since Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

"Junior has been so supportive of me bringing back the 3,'' Dillon said. "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 lot easier. If we didn't have him onboard, it would have definitely been tough to do this.''

So it begged to be asked: Would it have been better for the sport for the rookie Dillon to have won in the 3 than Earnhardt in the 88?

Dillon didn't hesitate to put it in proper perspective.

"It's pretty awesome for Dale Jr. to win,'' he said. "I'm a rookie and I have a long time, hopefully, in this sport ahead of me.''

Not that Dillon wouldn't have given his favorite cowboy hat to win the Great American Race on this rain-plagued night. But even those around him recognize that for a sport clamoring for its most popular driver to be successful, this was the best scenario.

In a way it was like the stars aligned on a night when they were covered by rain clouds for more than six hours of a weather delay.

Nobody knows that better than Richie Gilmore, the chief operating officer of Earnhardt Childress Engines. He built engines for Dale Earnhardt Inc. when Earnhardt was killed and when Earnhardt Jr. won the 500 for the first time in 2004.

He built the engine that put Dillon on the pole for the 500 a week ago.

So posed with the same question of which outcome would have been better for the sport, he didn't hesitate.

"The 88,'' he said. "If the 3 would have won tonight it almost would have been like when Junior first got into [the sport]. Too much pressure too quick.

"I don't think you could ask for a better night, from the 3 being on the pole, to having a top-10 finish, to the 88 winning.''

There has been pressure off and on for Junior to drive the 3 since his father was killed. He never once seriously considered it, choosing to take his own path.

Dillon grew up driving the 3 that his grandfather ran before the seven-time champion Earnhardt won six of his titles for RCR. He won the Truck series in that number in 2011 and the Nationwide Series in it a year ago.

If anybody deserved to bring it back to the Sprint Cup Series, it was him.

But Gilmore is right: To have won the 500 the first time out might have created more hype than one could expect even this mature 23-year-old to handle.

Winning the pole and leading the first lap of the 500 was good for the sport. But Junior winning the race was better.

Even Dillon's father, Mike, couldn't argue that point.

"For the sport, we got what was best,'' he said of Junior winning. "I don't think there's any question.''

Had Dillon won, there surely would have been at least whispers of a conspiracy theory, as often happens in this sport. Earnhardt finished second in the 500 three of the past four years. He had one of the dominant cars much of this night.

There's no way anybody could call this a conspiracy.

"Dale's a very popular driver,'' third-place finisher Brad Keselowski said when asked if the 88 winning was bigger for the sport than the 3. "Is he more popular than a number? I would like to think so.

"Certainly both are important stories and both would have been very rewarding for the sport. But I think the great thing about Dale winning today ... there's no drama, there's no feeling I think anybody could legitimately have that there's voodoo magic that he won.''

Dillon has plenty of time to win this race, and Sunday in many ways was a success. He survived being involved in three accidents, one that he directly caused.

At one point, Childress told his grandson it was like good ol' Volusia Speedway dirt track racing. At one point, Dillon was sideways and then backward and drove away without significant damage.

"That was awesome,'' Dillon's father said.

But the best thing this rookie did, as his dad put best, was stay calm.

"He didn't panic,'' Mike said.

And when it was over, Dillon arguably was happier for the winner he calls mentor and brother than he was himself.

"This was good momentum for our sport,'' he said. "Very cool for Dale Jr.''

And even cooler that Dillon recognized that.