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 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.
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.
“We just had a run and I stayed on the gas. It’s what it is when you’re at Daytona,” he said. “It is so awesome to take the 3 car back to victory lane, 20 years ago. This one’s for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and all those Senior fans. I love you guys. We’re going to keep kicking butt the rest of the year.”
Childress was overjoyed.
“I just, the emotions just flowing, to be able to win, with the 3 car, having it in the winner’s circle, my grandson, 20 years after Dale won in ‘98, so special,” Childress said.
The final scoring tower showed the No. 3 on top, then the No. 43 — two of the most seminal numbers in NASCAR.
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 finally did it.”
After another moment with his sister, Wallace sat at the dais sobbing into a towel. His finish is the highest for a black driver since Wendell Scott was 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 favourites Sunday — but all came up empty. Brad Keselowski wrecked early in the race racing for the lead and although Joey Logano finished fourth, it wasn’t the victory Penske expected from one of his drivers.
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.