“20 years of effort. 20 years of trying.” Indeed, 20 years after Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win, owner Richard Childress and grandson Austin Dillon made history once again in the No. 3 car.
Dillon surged into the lead on the final lap at Daytona International Speedway, turning Aric Almirola on the backstretch to surge into the front. From there, he edged out Darrell Wallace Jr. by 0.260 seconds to earn the victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season opener.
The win came 17 years to the day after Earnhardt passed away in a tragic last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Since then, Childress has won the 500 once, with Kevin Harvick in 2007, but not running the iconic No. 3.
“To come back 20 years after Dale’s great victory here. 20 years later, win with my grandson in the No. 3 car is a storybook tale,” Childress said. “He’s smiling down on me.”
Dillon overcame several obstacles in this one. Among them was losing the lead draft in the third stage; in the end, he only led a single lap. It’s the second straight year the 500 winner has only led on the white flag lap.
“I don’t know what it is about storylines and Daytona, but this place just creates history,” Dillon said. “I’m just proud to be a part of history tonight.”
For Wallace, it was the best finish for an African-American driver in the history of the Great American Race. That led to an emotional embrace with Wallace’s mom after the event.
— Dustin Albino (el-bee-no) (@DustinAlbino) February 19, 2018
“It’s Daytona,” he exhaled after a few tears at the podium. “Jesus Christ.”
Only 11 drivers wound up on the lead lap after several wrecks whittled down the competition. A whopping 15 drivers (38 percent of the field) failed to finish with many of the rest looking like they ran a short track, not a superspeedway.
With Chase Elliott, Danica Patrick, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski eliminated by the end of stage two it opened the door for others to break through. Ryan Blaney took advantage of that misfortune, dominating much of the race’s second half. His 118 laps led was a race high in a strong debut running the No. 12 Team Penske Ford.
But a race that appeared set up for Blaney changed after a late caution for William Byron’s spin. Bunching up the field gave a chance for others to challenge him. Suddenly, a bold move by Hamlin on the restart left Blaney a sitting duck in the middle.
From that point, he could never claw back up front. An ill-timed push of defending 500 winner Kurt Busch on lap 199 caused the final caution of the race.
“I thought we could control pretty well from the lead,” he said. “It just didn’t really play out that way.”
That bunched up the field one final time and gave Dillon a chance to break through. He surged ahead to second entering the white flag lap and then engaged in a back-and-forth with Almirola. Back and forth, the cars zigzagged down the backstretch until contact put the No. 10 in the wall.
Many fans were irate after the event, claiming Dillon bumped Almirola as a cheap shot. But the driver himself didn’t blame anyone for the wreck; instead, he claimed partial responsibility.
I did everything I could. I really thought we were going to victory lane at Daytona. I'm heartbroken to say the least, but this is a strong team and there's always next week. We'll see you at Atlanta.
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) February 19, 2018
It’s a move Dillon was comfortable with after the fact.
“I guess I could have lifted and given it to him,” he said. “Just given him a Daytona 500 ring.”
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