DAYTONA — Austin Dillon took the iconic No. 3 to Victory Lane on Sunday afternoon, honoring the memory of Dale Earnhardt, who drove that car number the day he died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.
Seventeen years later, Dillon made a move on leader Aric Almirola on the last lap, bumping him out of the way and into the wall, to win in overtime at Daytona International Speedway. Bubba Wallace was second, followed by Denny Hamlin.
Dillon drives for Richard Childress Racing. Childress was Earnhardt’s best friend and former team owner when Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in 1998.
“The emotions are just flowing, Childress said in Victory Lane.
“Right now I just want to thank the good Lord above,” Dillon said. “I did what I had to do there at the end. I hate it for the No. 10 (Almirola) 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 20 years ago. This one is for Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and all those Sr. fans. I love you guys. We are going to keep kicking butt the rest of the year!”
The kick came at the expense of Almirola, who is driving for Stewart-Haas Racing this season after leaving Richard Petty Motorsports.
“It was the last lap and we’re all trying to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola said. “It’s the biggest race of the year and it’s a career-changing race, so we were just racing really aggressively. I put every move I knew to try and stay in the lead and, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to hold on.
“He got to my back bumper and was pushing and just hooked me. My heart is broken, but the beauty is we’ll go to Atlanta and we’ve got an incredible race team here at Stewart-Haas Racing and we’ll have another shot next week.”
Dillon only led one lap, but it was the only one that mattered. Ryan Blaney led a race-high 114 laps but finished seventh.
As expected there were three major crashes intertwined among the 200-lap race.
Chase Elliott got loose on lap 103 and came up the wall, making contact with Brad Keselowski’s car and triggering a ripple effect that included five more cars that were damaged.
Another Unfortunate Son was Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports.
“Yeah, very, I hate it,” Elliott said. “I just wanted to make it to the end and give ourselves a chance, so I hate that we didn’t have that opportunity.”
It also ended the day for Danica Patrick, making her final run at Daytona.
It just wasn’t meant to be today,” Patrick said. “… that’s the gamble about Daytona. It can go so well, and it could go so awful.”
The first “Big One” of the day involved nine cars, taking out a number of cars for the day including Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy and the No. 9 Toyota driven by Daniel Suarez.
The carnage started when Rickey Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Blaney got over-aggressive fighting for position as the first stage was about to finish.