DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The No. 3 is No. 1 again at Daytona, on a day, in a race and at a place forever linked with the great Dale Earnhardt.
Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 on Sunday night (Feb. 18) driving the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet that Earnhardt piloted for most of his career. Earnhardt was behind the wheel of No. 3 when he won his only Daytona 500 in 1998, and when he was killed in an accident on the final lap of the race three years later.
Dillon’s victory, in the 60th running of “The Great American Race ,” came 17 years to the day of Earnhardt’s fatal crash.
“Man, this place is awesome,” said Dillon. “I don’t know what it is about storylines and Daytona. This place just creates history and I’m proud to be a part of it and make some history here.”
Dillon wasn’t a factor in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet until the final lap in overtime when he got a push from Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. that helped him get to leader Aric Almirola. Dillon spun Almirola then whizzed on by to give Childress, his grandfather, another iconic victory in the beloved No. 3.
“My grandfather has done everything for me and everybody knows it,” Dillon said. “There’s a lot of pressure on me to perform because I’ve had a little bit of everything. But I like that pressure, the same with the No. 3, there’s a lot of pressure behind it, but I’m willing to take it and go with it.”
As for the aggressive move that wrecked Almirola? Dillon was doing what has to be done to win at Daytona, where he led just once for one lap — the final one.
“I think I blacked out and just everything just kind of kept going, and we were staying in the gas, and things were happening fast. The last lap of the Daytona 500, you just don’t lift, actually the last couple laps,” Dillon said, adding his only other option was to ease off the gas and avoid Almirola.
“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him,” he said. “I guess that was my other option, give up a Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing. If he needs to do it to (retaliate) at Talladega for everybody to feel good, I’ve got a Daytona 500 championship trophy, ring, whatever. I don’t care. I’ve got the 3 back in victory lane at Daytona.”
Almirola, in his debut race for Stewart-Haas Racing, was devastated.
“My heart is broken. I thought I was going to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola said.
Childress was overjoyed.
“To come back 20 years later after Dale’s great victory, and to be able to celebrate 20 years later, with my grandson, it is just a storybook tale,” Childress said. “It’s tough on him running that 3, but we had, I’d say, 97 percent support from Earnhardt fans who wanted him to run that number.”
The No. 3 was dormant in the Cup Series from Earnhardt’s death until Childress brought it back in 2014 for his grandson.
The final scoring tower showed the No. 3 on top, then the No. 43 — two of the most seminal numbers in NASCAR.
“I looked up, seen the board up here, the 3 and the 43, I thought, how special is that for the history,” Childress said.
Wallace, the first black driver in the Daytona 500 field since 1969, finished second in a 1-2 finish for Chevrolet and Childress’ engine program. Wallace drives the No. 43 car for Richard Petty and sobbed in his post-race news conference after his mother came to the front of the room to give him a hug. The two had a long embrace in which she told Wallace repeatedly “you’ve waited so long, baby.”
After another moment with his sister, Wallace sat at the dais sobbing into a towel. His finish is the highest for a black driver; Wendell Scott finished 13th in 1966.
“Pull it together, bud, pull it together. You just finished second,” he told himself.
Wallace, from Mobile, Alabama, received a telephone call from Hank Aaron before the race and Lewis Hamilton, the four-time Formula One world champion and only black driver in that series, tweeted his support to Wallace.
Denny Hamlin, the 2016 winner, finished third in a Toyota.
Ryan Blaney, who led a race-high 118 laps, faded to seventh after giving the win away in regulation. He wrecked Kurt Busch, the defending race winner, trying to reclaim his lead and the contact damaged Blaney’s Ford. It spoiled what should have been a Team Penske party — car owner Roger Penske had three contenders, all considered favorites — but all came up empty. Brad Keselowski wrecked early racing for the lead and although Joey Logano finished fourth, it wasn’t the victory Penske expected from one of his drivers.
“It’s a shame you don’t close it out, but you try to just learn from your mistakes and try to do better next time,” Blaney said. “This one definitely stings, but hopefully we can get another shot at it one day.”
The day was also a bust for Danica Patrick, who made the Daytona 500 her final NASCAR race. With new boyfriend NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers cheering her on, Patrick was collected in an accident and finished 35th. The only woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500 and win the pole for this race then told a story about an exchange she had earlier this week with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.
“He said his last Daytona didn’t go well, either, and I was like ‘Oh wow, I don’t remember that. I remember your career.’ So I hope that is how it is with me with everybody,” she said.
Meanwhile, on this celebratory day for Dillon and Childress, the late Earnhardt had a very large presence.
Dillon was 7 when Earnhardt won his Daytona 500 and was photographed alongside his brother with The Intimidator on that victorious day in 1998. Earnhardt credited 6-year-old Wessa Miller, a fan he met through the Make-A-Wish Foundation following the final practice for the race, for helping him get that elusive win. Wessa gave Earnhardt the penny and told him she had rubbed it and that it would bring him good luck. The lucky penny the little girl gave him is still on the dash of the car at the RCR museum.
Inspired by the good-luck coin, Dillon also had a penny in the No. 3 on Sunday, this one given to him by a young boy he met at an autograph session earlier in Speedweeks.
“I had a fan, actually he had no favorite driver, I told him, I said, ‘I’ll give you my hat if I’m your favorite driver.’ I gave him the hat,” Dillon said. “The next day he saw me in the infield, he said, ‘Here’s a lucky penny I found heads up.’ I said, ‘Man, we’ve gotta put that in the car.’ Put it in the car and here we are in victory lane.”
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