The 2018 Daytona 500 left the longest lasting impression I’ve had from the Great American Race since seeing Trevor Bayne score his improbable triumph in 2011, returning Wood Brothers Racing to relevance. As memorable a race as that was, and as stellar as the No. 21 driver was throughout that Speedweeks, I have never been more wrong then I was writing that “the future of Ford racing has arrived” in the form of Bayne that Sunday night.
Much like that 2011 race, I remember the 2018 Daytona 500 as a race of wrongs. And while Austin Dillon did nothing wrong in winning the race, he was the dead wrong race winner to kick off NASCAR’s 2018.
Rewind the replay of the race’s finish and there’s no room for analysis or debate. Aric Almirola threw a late block heading down the backstretch, Dillon made no effort to lift or even evade, hit him in the back, and drove off into the Daytona Beach sunset.
A controversial win? Yes. A deserved win? Debatable. An ill-gotten gain? It’s hard to argue that’s the case. With years of criticism raining down on drivers across the NASCAR realm for not racing hard for wins in lieu of scoring points, here it was in the flesh: a driver doing literally whatever it took to win, even if it was done with the precision and subtlety of a sledgehammer.
With the same subtlety that Dillon drove with, I’ll state this: Dillon did nothing wrong in winning the 500. He certainly didn’t make a lot of friends or fans doing it the way he did, and should another driver opt to bulldoze the No. 3 to score a win down the road, he can direct his complaints to the nearest brick wall.
Having said that, Dillon was the absolute wrong driver NASCAR needed to win to kick off 2018. For one, the driver Dillon wrecked to win the 500 was Almirola. Almirola, the poster child for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. Almirola, a driver who did more in his debut in the No. 10 car than Danica Patrick did in five-plus seasons. Almirola, a driver who’s paid his dues as much as any other in the sport (name another driver who got pulled from his machine while leading a freaking race).
But with all the hype surrounding the youth movement headed into the 2018 season, Dillon certainly seemed to fit the bill as the Daytona 500 champion for whom the sport was looking. Dillon’s own story was compelling. A grandson winning for a legendary car owner is a great story. A driver who visited Daytona International Speedway’s Victory Lane as a kid returning to score his own Harley J. Earl trophy is a great story.
But in winning the 500 the way he did, pouncing late after being a non-factor for much of the afternoon, Dillon proved himself a survivor of the draft, rather than a master of it. If NASCAR was seeking a display of the talent of its youth movement, it didn’t come from the No. 3 car.
And speaking of that No. 3, NASCAR and FOX proved themselves completely unable in 2018, the season that marked the departure of the name Dale Earnhardt from the ranks of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing, to let go and move on from the Earnhardt era. The No. 3 was back in Victory Lane at Daytona for the first time in 20 years, even if those 20 years were marked with none of the heartbreak or the close calls that saw the sport’s greatest race evade the modern sport’s greatest driver. The black hat of NASCAR was back in Daytona Victory Lane for the first time this decade (just look at the ads — Austin Dillon is on the dark side! Really!) And the driver of the No. 3 got back to Daytona Victory Lane 20 years later thanks to a lucky penny, just like Earnhardt had.
That Sunday in Daytona had all the manufactured drama of a TV movie, and NASCAR’s playoffs hadn’t even started.
It can be debated whether Dillon’s winning move/punt was the defining moment of the 2018 season. Be it Joey Logano continuing the trend of Martinsville Speedway’s fall race sparking playoff fireworks or Jimmie Johnson losing a title shot thanks to a self-induced spin at his house (granted, it was remodeled into a ROVAL), there were other significant events that had a greater impact on the title chase.
It can be debated whether this 500 marked the end of restrictor plate racing. I certainly argue that continually seeing 500-mile races at Talladega Superspeedway turn into parades for 480 of those miles had more to do with it than the Daytona 500 did; after all, handling has returned to the fold on the high banks of Daytona. And there are some out there that will debate my earlier conclusion that Dillon wasn’t in the wrong winning the 2018 Daytona 500 the way he did.
What’s not up for debate, however, is that a Daytona 500 trophy does not make a driver the champion, the ambassador, even the hero that the sport needs. Despite returning the Wood Brothers to relevance, Bayne’s career has proven largely irrelevant to the Cup racing scene.
Just as Austin Dillon’s 2018 season post-Daytona proved to be.