Twenty years after Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the 1998 Daytona 500 driving the iconic number 3 Chevrolet for Hall of Fame team owner Richard Childress, Childress’s grandson Austin Dillon repeated the feat Sunday by winning the 60th Great American Race for his Pop Pop.
In addition to Dillon’s victory, the story of Bubba Wallace—who finished second— made headlines. Wallace, a crowd favorite, is a rookie driving the famous number 43 for Hall of Fame driver and now team owner Richard Petty. This season, Wallace will be the first African-American athlete in more than 40 years to drive in the Cup Series full-time. Hall of Famer Wendell Scott was the last to do it. Wallace’s second-place finish in the 500 was the highest for an African-American driver since Scott finished 13th in 1966.
The afternoon before the Daytona 500 witnessed the closest race in the history of NASCAR, with only 0.0004 of a second separating first (Tyler Reddick) and second place (Elliott Sadler) during the Xfinity Series event. It was decided by a photo finish. Everyone hoped that the Daytona 500 would produce similar drama, and the race did not disappoint!
The 500 took place under sunny skies and in front of a crowd of 120,000 in the most important event of the NASCAR season—often called the Super Bowl of the sport. It saw many of the big names—seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, and defending champion Kurt Busch—suffer race-ending wrecks.
Even Ryan Blaney, who led the most laps and appeared to have the dominant car, saw his day end with just two laps to go when he was caught up in a 12-car wreck. The caution flag came out, which forced overtime, meaning the remaining cars regrouped for a two-lap race to the finish once the track was cleared of debris from the accident.
All of this set up the drama on the second lap of overtime and final lap of the race. Aric Almirola, driving the number 10 in his first race with defending champion team Stewart-Haas, had the lead halfway down the backstretch with just over a mile to the finish line. The cars, however, were lined up in two rows behind him, forcing him to try to block the momentum of the other drivers by moving from side to side.
Dillon had the most momentum with help from the cars pushing him, and when Almirola moved up to block him, Dillon turned Almirola into the wall and had clear sailing to the finish through turns 3 and 4. But despite the lead and clear path to victory, team owner Childress admitted that he only celebrated once his grandson crossed the finish line, given past disappointments and the 20 tries it took Earnhardt to win his first Daytona 500.
“When he crossed the start-finish line is when you know you win at Daytona. We’ve lost it before [when] leading going into turn 3, and once I [saw] him come down the front stretch with the lead, it really made me feel good then.”
Even for Dillon, it did not sink in immediately. “They told me we won, and I didn’t believe them at first,” he said. “It’s kind of one of those things like, ‘Are you serious? We won the Daytona 500?!’ It’s an awesome feeling!”
Photographs by (from top): David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images (Dillon and team celebrating); Michael Nichols (interviewing Dillon); Robert Laberge/Getty Images (Dillon and Childress)