Dale Earnhardt’s number is back in victory lane for the first time since 2000.
Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 that Earnhardt made famous for Richard Childress Racing, made his fuel tank last over the final 67 laps of the rain-delayed Coca-Cola 600 to win the first Cup Series race of his career.
Dillon was running second to Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps. Johnson was also trying to stretch his fuel tank but he ran out of gas with two laps to go. Dillon took over the lead and came pretty close to coasting across the finish line ahead of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Dillon’s car had to be pushed to victory lane because he didn’t have enough gas to drive it there.
Truex led 392 of 400 laps in 2016 and had the race’s dominant car again Sunday night, leading over 200 laps. He pitted with 33 laps to go and it looked like he would have the speed to run down Dillon and Johnson before the checkered flag.
He didn’t. As he closed to within 1.5 seconds of Dillon, Kyle Busch passed him on the outside on the final lap for second. Had Dillon run out of gas in the final two corners, Busch and Truex were poised to pounce. But he didn’t.
The 27-year-old entered Sunday’s race — delayed 100 minutes for rain with 257 laps to go — 22nd in the points standings and with a new crew chief. Justin Alexander, who began 2016 as teammate Paul Menard’s crew chief, became Dillon’s third crew chief in three-plus years before the 600 as the team parted ways with Slugger Labbe.
Dillon took over the No. 3 when he came to the Cup Series in 2014. When Kevin Harvick moved over to Stewart-Haas Racing, Childress promoted his grandson to Harvick’s car and changed the number from No. 29 back to No. 3. The team had used No. 29 ever since Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt’s last Cup Series win came in October of 2000 when he won at Talladega.
Dillon won the pole for the 2014 Daytona 500, his first Cup Series race in the No. 3, but hadn’t sniffed a win despite making the playoffs in 2016 on points.
He’s in with a win in 2017. It’s the second for RCR this season and both have come via fuel mileage. Ryan Newman stretched his fuel on a strategy play at Phoenix to get a win earlier this season.
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