The season-opening race this year had so many different emotions, it’s hard to even try and sum it up in words because the feelings that came out are just ones that only certain people could understand.
Just the date of the race alone brings about many emotions.
It was on February 18, 2001, that the NASCAR world in a sense stopped. Final corner, final lap, with his new driver and his son in front, Dale Earnhardt hammered the wall at Daytona. It was later that afternoon, within a couple hours, when Mike Helton held an impromptu press conference to announce that Earnhardt did not survive the accident.
Fans that wore his number for years suddenly saw the rock that was still extremely old-school in the sport, be called up to the heavens.
This same week, just four years earlier, Earnhardt experienced the highlight of his career. Even after seven championships, he still didn’t find victory in NASCAR’s biggest event. Finally, on a cloudy afternoon, he managed to be out front when it mattered the most, and not one fan in the sport was sad at that instant. He finally won the big race, and it seemed so right that the icon of the sport finally got what he always wanted.
When Earnhardt died, his number was taken off the car, and Richard Childress felt no one was going to run that number any longer in Cup competition.
But, when Childress saw his grandson become ready for his Cup opportunity, his dilemma came up. Austin Dillon, for his entire career, ran that number, but what would fans say? They still felt that the No. 3 was Earnhardt’s number, just as many felt the No. 43 was Richard Petty, and still is.
However, he opted to bring the number back, and Dillon knew what it meant, because some may like it, but many wouldn’t.
This year, Dillon is running the number again, but this time to start 2018, it was like when it mattered most, the stars aligned.
It had been exactly 17 years since Earnhardt left this world, and on the same day, at the same track, that he was taken away from NASCAR, the No. 3 found it’s way back to victory lane at Daytona. This time, it was not just about the car number, nor the team. It was family, and maybe a little bit of help from above that got the car in position to win at the right moment.
This time, fans seemed to realize that Dillon was his own driver, and did not have to think about living up to a legacy that not even Dale Earnhardt Jr. wanted to meet. He is writing his own chapter in the No. 3, and now he has something in common with a man who was one of the first inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Austin Dillon: Daytona 500 champion.
The only downside is the car he won in, now it goes into the Daytona 500 Experience museum. But, a small sacrifice for winning that every driver certainly doesn’t mind.
STAGE 1: Kurt Busch
STAGE 2: Ryan Blaney
RESULTS: 1-Dillon 2-Wallace 3-Hamlin 4-Logano 5-Buescher 6-Menard 7-Blaney 8-Newman 9-McDowell 10-Allmendinger
NOTABLE FINISHES: 17-Bowman 18-Truex Jr. 19-Larson 25-Kyle Busch 26-Kurt Busch 31-Harvick 32-Keselowski 33-Elliott 38-Johnson
CAUTIONS: 8 for 37 laps. Lap 10-12 (#72 Incident-T2); 52-55 (#18, 96, 1 Incident-T3); 61-66 (#24, 20, 13, 19, 48, 17, 12, 78, 42 Incident-BS); 94-97 (Debris-BS); 103-108 (#9, 7, 4, 34, 78, 2, 95 Incident-T3); 122-126 (Stage 2 Conclusion); 191-193 (#24 Spin-T4); 200-205 (#41, 78, 32, 17, 62, 12, 88, 31, 22, 43, 00, 47-T2).
LEAD CHANGES: 24 among 14 drivers. A. Bowman POLE; D. Hamlin 1-10; J. Marks(i) 11; Kurt Busch 12-14; A. Bowman 15-22; E. Jones 23-33; R. Stenhouse Jr. 34-44; C. Elliott 45-48; J. Logano 49-51; Kurt Busch 52-62; A. Bowman 63-67; R. Blaney 68-93; P. Menard 94; M. Truex Jr. 95-98; R. Blaney 99-122; A. Allmendinger 123;
R. Blaney 124-170; D. Hamlin 171-173; R. Blaney 174-193; D. Hamlin 194; Kurt Busch 195-196; R. Blaney 197; D. Hamlin 198-205; A. Almirola 206; A. Dillon 207.
TIME OF RACE: 3 Hrs, 26 Mins, 15 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 150.545 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.260 Seconds
POINTS (Earned/Behind leader [Playoff Points]): 1. Blaney, 58 ; 2. Logano, -8; 3. Dillon, -11 ; 4. Wallace, -11; 5. Menard, -12; 6. McDowell, -19; 7. Hamlin, -21; 8. Newman, -24; 9. Buescher, -25; 10. Almirola, -25.