DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Let’s just start by running down all of the Earnhardt-related themes heading into Sunday’s Daytona 500.
• The 2018 race was 17 years to the day since Dale Earnhardt died in a head-on crash in turn 4 on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
• The race was 20 years after Earnhardt won his first and only Daytona in 1998 after a 19-year winless streak.
• With Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement after the 2017 season, it was the first Daytona 500 since 1978 — a stretch of 40 years — without a driver named Dale Earnhardt competing in it.
Those three factors in mind, it was a bit much to ask the racing gods for an Austin Dillon win on Sunday. Dillon, who won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2014 in his first race driving Earnhardt’s No. 3, has been the only driver to run the number since Earnhardt’s death. Just how many Dale Earnhardt-related parallels can one race have?
Ironically for those into numerology, the number is more than three. Dillon took home the 2018 Daytona 500 with a last lap move on Aric Almirola that was befitting of the man who piloted the black Richard Childress Racing No. 3 before him. As Almirola went to block Dillon, the 27-year-old stayed in the gas, hitting Almirola’s bumper.
The continued contact sent Almirola spinning into the wall, a high-speed 2.5-mile track move with some similarities to Earnhardt’s famous move on Terry Labonte at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1999.
Admittedly, the moves aren’t direct comparisons. Bumping and spinning someone at a short track is far different than a bump and a head-on collision at a track where average speeds in the draft broke 200 MPH on Sunday.
But would you have gotten out of the gas on Sunday with a Daytona 500 win in sight? Even if you answered yes, would you have expected Earnhardt to get out of the gas had he been the guy in the No. 3 trailing Almirola?
“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him,” Dillon said. “I guess that was my other option. Give up a Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing. I don’t know. I’m glad he’s not mad. If he needs to do it to me at Talladega for everyone to feel good, I’ve got a Daytona 500 championship trophy, ring, whatever. I don’t care. I got the 3 back in victory lane in Daytona. It feels pretty good.”
Earnhardt, of course, was famous and revered for his aggressive driving style that garnered him the nickname of “Intimidator.” He was the guy you didn’t want behind you on the last lap with the checkered flag in sight.
Racing ethics among fans are more often about the drivers involved than the actions themselves. Dillon’s move will likely be one of the most-contested incidents of the 2018 season and in recent Daytona 500 memory. If he was named Earnhardt, the majority opinion would conclude he did the right thing. Since he’s not, it’s not so cut-and-dried.
Should Dillon have done something differently? Could he have done something differently? Was running through Almirola’s bumper the only option he had? It might have been given the way the race had played out.
NASCAR made changes to its rules for Daytona entering the 2018 season. One of them was lowering the ride heights on the cars in an attempt to keep them flying through the air like Dillon’s vicious crash into the fence in Daytona in 2015.
That decreased height led to increased speeds in the draft. Cars caught each other quicker than they had in previous years and drivers had less margin for error when protecting their positions. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. triggered a multi-car accident in the first stage by blocking Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott’s blocking of Brad Keselowski led to another big accident in the second stage.
Because of what had transpired throughout the race, Almirola was expecting for Dillon to hit him when he moved up in front.
“He’s not driving too aggressively, he’s trying to win the Daytona 500 just like I was,” Almirola said. “I saw him come with the momentum and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try to win the Daytona 500. I wasn’t gonna just let him have it.”
And Dillon was obviously not going to give it to Almirola.
“I had such a run and I had to use it,” Dillon said. “If I lift right there I get run over [from trailing cars] out the back too. It’s just part of this place. I’ve been run over — I’ve been in the catchfence and not mad after the race because that’s just part of it. Your eyes roll back in your head and you say don’t lift. And you just go.”
The grandson of Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s car owner, Dillon moved up to the Cup Series to drive for his grandfather a year after winning the Xfinity Series title.
Yes, Childress admitted Sunday, he did worry about some Earnhardt-related pressure for his grandson, who won his first race less than a year ago thanks to some key strategy. Before he became famous for being Earnhardt’s championship car owner, Childress drove the No. 3 himself to far less success and fanfare.
That prior use, he said, helped make the choice for Dillon to drive the No. 3 in the Cup Series after Kevin Harvick left the team.
“I asked some friends what they thought about it, who I really believe in — [Bass Pro Shops owner] Johnny Morris and some people like that,” Childress said. “I asked Johnny about bringing it back. He and Dale were real close and he sponsored Austin in the Truck Series, that was the first time we brought [No. 3] back and Austin ran the Bandelero cars with No. 3 and when he asked me about 3 I said that was Dale’s number, that’s a famous number. He said ‘no it isn’t, it’s your number, you drove it and that’s why I want it.’ So that helped make my decision. But Dale made it famous. Trust me.”
And, four years later, that decision has led to the No. 3 being back in victory lane in Daytona.
“Growing up as the grandson, you always look up to people and the relationship him and Dale Earnhardt had was a friendship that you don’t find every day,” Dillon said. “It’s one of those friendships that the best friend that you trust and love and I can tell how much, as I grew older, their friendship meant and still wears on him because he misses him.”
“I’ll never be able to recreate any of that. But to be able to go to victory lane for him because he’s given me everything I can ask for in my career. Everybody knows that. I’m here because of him. But to be able to deliver a trophy back to him? It feels pretty darn good.”
– – – – – – –