Last week, I wrote about the younger generation of NASCAR drivers, their promise and what their success meant to the future of NASCAR.
As I am wont to do, I left out a couple of names and I’ll be danged if one of them didn’t go out and win the Daytona 500, in, debatably, the most iconic number in NASCAR, followed by, debatably, the most iconic number in NASCAR.
In case you missed it, and if you’re reading this — I doubt you did — Austin Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress, claimed the 60th running of the “Great American Race” in the No. 3 Chevrolet. The win came 20 years after Dale Earnhardt won his first and only Daytona 500 in the No. 3 owned by Childress: one of the most popular and memorable races in NASCAR history. Seven-year-old Austin was in victory lane on that day in 1998.
More tragically, the win came 17 years to the day after Earnhardt’s death in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
So to say this win resonates with NASCAR fans is an understatement. Here is a young guy with a tangible connection to NASCAR’s biggest icon who won on NASCAR’s biggest stage, in a manner reminiscent of “The Intimidator,” turning Aric Almirola on the backstretch.
I was on pit road at the end of the race and there was no mistaking the cheers from the full (ish) grandstands and full (ish) infield following the checkered flag and throughout Dillon’s burnout and celebration. Bubba Wallace in Richard Petty’s No. 43 followed Dillon to the checkered flag in his first Daytona 500. He was the first African-American driver to race in the 500 since Wendell Scott in 1969.
I can’t overstate this: these two things are huge for the sport. With Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement and the dour attitude that was prevalent for most of the offseason, NASCAR needed a kick start and started off the 2018 campaign with a bang.
The young drivers did well in the 500. Ryan Blaney led a bunch of laps. Chris Buescher finished fifth. The racing was decent. There was a good crowd at the track (in fact, I had to fight through a huge throng of people to go pee on pit road during the race). There was some controversy (of course, Denny Hamlin was in the middle of it). There were some surprises late in the race: Matt Dibenedetto was racing for the win with two laps to go. Michael McDowell finished in the top 10; Justin Marks finished just outside of it.
NASCAR needed stories and they got them.
Speaking of stories and surprising finishes: David Gilliland finished 14th driving for Columbus County-based Ricky Benton Racing. The team with three full-time employees was making their first Cup start in a backup car and finishing in the top 15 was like a win for these guys. (Full disclosure: I was in Daytona helping the team out. I love an underdog more than most).
They got wrecked in their qualifying race and had to roll out a car that was about 75 percent complete. That was Thursday night. Well into the evening, the team of seven guys plus their Roush Yates engine tuner worked to take bits off the primary and put them in the backup.
They were back at it again all day Friday; starting at 9 a.m. and working for the better part of 12 hours to get the car ready for Gilliland to turn some practice laps on Saturday. Gilliland ran 13 laps in final practice before hitting the track on Sunday. Of course, the car showed it early, not having the feel the driver needed and lacking speed. Crew chief Mike Hester kept working on the car and the team caught a couple of lucky breaks and brought home a good finish and one car without a scratch on it.
That one may not be a story picked up by many, but it is a still a very good one.
Andy Cagle, a former spokesman for Rockingham Speedway and motorsports public relations consultant, writes about NASCAR in a weekly column.