Austin Dillon prevailed in a game of Survivor played at 200 miles per hour, winning the Sunday’s Daytona 500 fiercely and unapologetically after turning race leader Aric Almirola in the third corner of the final lap.
Ten of the 40 drivers who started the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ season-opening event finished on the lead lap in a race that featured eight cautions and three massive wrecks that eliminated many of the strongest cars in the field.
After a huge push from Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. down the backstretch on the second and final lap of overtime, Dillon tagged Almirola’s rear bumper when Almirola moved up the track to block him near the entrance to Turn 3.
Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford turned sideways and tagged the wall as Dillon sped past in the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet bearing the No. 3, the car number that carried the late Dale Earnhardt to his only victory in the Great American Race 20 years ago.
“I did what I had to do there at the end,” Dillon said. “I hate it for the No. 10 (Almirola’s) guys. We had a run, and I stayed in the gas. It is what it is here at Daytona.
“This is so awesome to take the No. 3 car back to Victory Lane. This one is for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and all those (Dale) Sr. fans. I love you guys. We are going to keep kicking butt the rest of the year!”
Racing for his grandfather, Richard Childress, Dillon got his first victory in last year’s Coca-Cola 600. That was a fuel-mileage win. Sunday’s quest for the Harley J. Earl trophy was a rough-and-tumble affair. Dillon said before the race that he liked his chances. He liked them better when he lined up fourth for the final restart and reacted when the race came to him.
“I knew we were in a good spot,” Dillon said. “And I have to thank Darrell Wallace, Jr.—he did a great job. Finishing one-two with ECR (Earnhardt Childress Racing) engines. What a day. Thanks, Darrell, for that push. I had to make it happen in the end.
“I said (after) my first win I couldn’t beat it, but this does. My grandfather has done everything for me. Everybody knows it. There is 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 is a lot of pressure behind that.
“But I’m willing to take that and go with it. I’m just thankful for all the people that support us along the way—Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family for letting us bring this number back. It comes full circle. I just can’t thank the Lord enough for this opportunity.”
Wallace ran second, 0.260 seconds behind Dillon and .002 seconds ahead of third-place finisher Denny Hamlin, who led the field to green to start the overtime but, as the only Toyota driver on the lead lap, couldn’t find a drafting partner in the two-lap shootout that decided the race.
Wallace posted the best finish ever by an African-American driver in the Daytona 500, surpassing the 13th-place result of NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in 1966.
Joey Logano overcame a myriad of issues to come home fourth, and Chris Buescher secured a fifth-place finish in his No. 37 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet.
The finishing order, however, did little to reflect the bulk of the race. Seventh-place finisher Ryan Blaney led 118 of the 207 laps but suffered damage to the nose of his No. 12 Ford in a 13-car pileup on Lap 199, the wreck that sent the race to overtime.
That accident also ended the winning chances of 2017 Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, who was jousting for the top spot as the end of regulation approached; pole winner Alex Bowman, who ran patiently in the top five for most of the event; and Martin Truex Jr., the defending series champion.
Notes: Dillon’s victory was the first for Chevrolet’s new Camaro ZL1 race car, which was introduced into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season… A six-car wreck on Lap 102 knocked Danica Patrick out of the race. She ended her NASCAR career with a 35th-place finish. Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and pre-race favorite Brad Keselowski were eliminated in the same incident… Jimmie Johnson’s lost his third No. 48 Chevrolet during Speedweeks in a nine-car collision on Lap 60 that also KO’d the strong Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez… Kurt Busch won the first 60-lap stage and Blaney the second. Blaney leads the series standings by six points over Dillon and sixth-place finisher Paul Menard.