DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Memories were stoked Sunday at Daytona International Speedway as the grandson of Dale Earnhardt’s best friend took Earnhardt’s old number back to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500.
Austin Dillon saw his opportunity and took it to win the 60th running of the race.
Never seemingly among the top contenders all day, Dillon got to Aric Almirola’s rear bumper on the final lap and bumped by him to put the No. 3 in back on top of the season’s first race for the first time since the late driver did it 20 years ago.
Dillon races for his grandfather, Richard Childress, who was also Earnhardt’s team owner. Bringing back the No. 3, which hadn’t been used since Earnhardt’s death in this race in 2001, was finally blessed by Childress in 2014, though it was discussed by Childress and “The Intimidator” when Earnhardt was still alive.
Now its legacy has been lifted even higher with only the third 500 victory for Childress — one by Earnhardt, one by his replacement, Kevin Harvick, and now one by Childress’ grandson.
“It was so awesome to take the 3 car back to Victory Lane,” Dillon said. “This is for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and all those Senior fans.”
And it wasn’t Dillon’s first experience in Daytona’s Victory lane, either. He was there 20 years ago.
“Daytona has a way with just making memories,” he said. “This place makes memory after memory, and they are life-changing memories, and I was fortunate to be in Victory Lane 20 years ago. and I’m here again, but I’m driving — this is awesome!”
It was an overtime finish totaling 207 laps, seven more than scheduled, as a late wreck made NASCAR re-rack the field for a final sprint to the finish.
“I knew we were in a good spot,” Dillon said. “And I have to thank Darrell Wallace Jr., he did a great job. Finishing one-two with ECR (Earnhardt-Childress Racing) engines.
“What a day. Thanks Darrell for that push. I had to make it happen in the end.”
Wallace, affectionately known as “Bubba,” had quite the day himself.
His second-place finish was the highest for an African-American driver in “The Great American Race.” The only black driver to win in NASCAR’s top series was Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, who captured the Jacksonville 200 in 1963. Scott is the only other black driver to run the Daytona 500, and his highest finish was 13th in 1966.
Now driving for the legendary Richard Petty in Petty’s legendary No. 43, Wallace was emotional after the race when his mother found him and gave him a hug and kisses.
“Dang it, mom!” Wallace said in the media center. “I’m trying to keep it together here.”
But for a driver who entered the race with only four starts at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup level, it was heady stuff. As was the pre-race call from baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron and tweets from Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton.
“Wow, that makes you feel good,” he said. “It definitely pulls on your heartstrings a little bit, just to know that you’re being watched by so many greats. They’re the ones you’re looking up to and they reach out to you and that’s really cool.
“So, I kind of feel like that little kid that looks up to me and I respond back to them.”
The race for the lead was intense over the final few scheduled laps, but with two to go, one of Daytona’s customary big wrecks shook up the field with Denny Hamlin up front.
Daytona is a 2.5-mile D-shaped oval, and as one of only two tracks of that type in NASCAR — the other is 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway — the cars run with restrictor plates. That limits the air intake into the engine and serves to slow the cars down and essentially levels the playing field.
That means cars running close together at 200 mph and no good way to avoid getting caught up in a crash once one starts.
NASCAR continues to have two stages a race before the final finish after deeming it a success last year, and with playoff points on the line, drivers race aggressively near the end of them.
With the stages being set for the Daytona 500 at Lap 60 and Lap 120 of the scheduled 200-lap event, things got dicey on Lap 59.
A wreck involving multiple cars — it’s usually called “The Big One” — is a fact of life at Daytona, making it a race of attrition. Caught up in it on Lap 59 were seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, William Byron, Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson.
Kurt Busch was out front and away from the carnage to win Stage 1, but he was caught up in the crash on Lap 198 and taken out of contention.
As the laps wound down in Stage 2, another big crash took out Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott and Danica Patrick, among others, on Lap 102.
Blaney was in the lead then and went on to win Stage 2, setting up the frantic finale.
Alex Bowman, who took over the No. 88 Chevrolet Camaro from Dale Earnhardt Jr., started on the pole and was near the front when he, too, crashed on Lap 198.
Hamlin was leading early when a caution came out on Lap 9 and that led to near-disaster for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry. He partially ran through his pit box, and before he could back up, the gas can man started fueling the car. That meant a one-lap penalty from NASCAR and a long slog to get that lap back.
But as is often the case at restrictor-plate tracks, back he came, and he was among the top contenders again by Lap 140. He wound up in third place.
–K. Lee Davis, Field Level Media