DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Twenty years ago, the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet pulled into victory lane at Daytona Int’l Speedway, as Dale Earnhardt finally broke his famous dry spell by winning ‘The Great American Race’.
On that day, a seven-year-old Austin Dillon stood in victory lane dreaming of someday having his own shot to do the same.
Sunday night, two decades after that childhood memory, history repeated itself as Dillon returned the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevrolet to Daytona’s hallowed winner’s circle by winning the 60th running of the Daytona 500.
Dillon used a last-lap pass of Aric Almirola, after the two made contact at the end of the backstretch that Almirola spinning head-on into the outside wall in turn three, to take command of NASCAR’s biggest race and capture the checkered flag in one of the most dramatic finishes in the sport’s long history.
The Lewisville, N.C. driver put himself in position to win after slipping through the ‘Big One’ with two laps left in regulation, lining up fourth for an overtime restart and pushing Almirola to the lead on the final lap.
Coming up the backstretch for the final time, Dillon got a huge run thanks to a push from Darrell Wallace Jr. and drove right up to Almirola’s back bumper in the race for the win. Almirola moved up from the bottom lane to block, and Dillon then started to duck low to draw alongside headed for turn three.
When Almirola tried to block Dillon’s second move, the two made contact, sending Almriola into the outside wall and Dillon on home to Daytona glory.
“That’s some cool stuff. I did what I had to do at the end; we just had a run and I stayed in the gas,” Dillon said. “It is so awesome to take the No. 3 car back to victory lane after (what happened) 20 years ago,” Dillon said. “This one is for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and all his fans.”
Dillon’s first win came on fuel mileage in the Coca-Cola 600 last May at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That night, he said no race win would ever surpass his first one.
He had to eat his own words though on Sunday night, after climbing from his car as a winner of the Daytona 500.
“I said after my first win that nothing could beat it, but this does,” Dillon admitted. “My grandfather (team owner Richard Childress) has done everything for me. There is a lot of pressure on me to perform, but I love that pressure. Now it’s all come full circle. I can’t thank everyone enough for this opportunity.”
“Bubba gave me a heck of a push down the backstretch and that helped me get here. Man, we just won the Harley J. Earl Trophy! I can’t believe it.”
The final restart was set up following a crash with two to go in the advertised distance, when race-long dominator Ryan Blaney and defending Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch got together in turn one, sparking a major crash that eliminated names like polesitter Alex Bowman, dark horse Brendan Gaughan and multi-time restrictor plate winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in its wake.
When the green flag returned for the final time, Hamlin sat on the bottom with Chris Buescher lined up behind him, and it looked as though Hamlin was the favorite to collect his second win in the 500.
Instead, a run to the outside by Almirola — combined with a loss of momentum for the bottom lane when Paul Menard ducked out of line behind Buescher — put the No. 10 Smithfield Ford out front with two-and-a-half miles to run.
But that move down the backstretch changed everything, and by the time the field came around for the checkered flag, it was Dillon out front pulling away from the pack.
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