There’s just something about this story.
Exactly 20 years ago, Dale Earnhardt drove the No. 3 Chevrolet to the only Daytona 500 win of his illustrious career. Not only that, but he did so with a fan’s lucky penny glued to his dash.
Now the story repeats.
On Sunday, Austin Dillon replicated almost every one of those circumstances: the legendary No. 3; his first Daytona 500 win; and driving for Richard Childress, his grandfather (and Earnhardt’s longtime owner). He even had a lucky penny of his own, which he traded a young fan for earlier this week at Daytona International Speedway.
“I signed my hat, gave it to him, and said, ‘Now look, I’ve got to be your favorite driver, right?’” Dillon said of the fan who gave him the penny. “The next day he had my hat on and I was walking through the garage and I seen him at the fence, and ... he’s like, ‘Hey, I got this for you.’
“It was a lucky penny. Put it in the car, and it’s sitting on the dash right now. It’s pretty special. I think that’s really cool.”
Really the most stark difference in the two wins is the drivers. When Earnhardt won his Daytona 500, he had already accomplished everything there was to win in the sport – except that. It was the final missing jewel for the sport’s best-ever driver.
Dillon, on the other hand, had only won once at the Cup Series level in four full-time seasons (last year’s Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway). This win now becomes his crowning achievement – so far.
And it almost didn’t happen. After all, Dillon didn’t lead for the first 199 of 200 laps. He stayed alive and in one piece, which is more than can be said for a good chunk of the field, but no, he wasn’t in the front.
But with two laps to go, a major wreck wiped out or damaged a quarter of the field. That’s all Dillon needed. On the restart, he pushed up and up and into second place, right behind Aric Almirola in the lead.
His choices? Bump him, or settle for second.
“I guess I could have lifted and gave (the win) to him,” Dillon said. “I guess that was my other option, give up a Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing.”
Dillon nudged Almirola from behind just enough to spin him out, and then he sped by. As the rest of the field dodged Almirola’s whirling car, Dillon built himself a cushion.
He crossed the finish line, but when he did, something Childress told him reverberated through his mind.
When Earnhardt won in 1998, he spun in the grass in the infield. It was Dillon’s duty as the driver of the No. 3 to do the same.
So he did, twirling donuts while his crew leapt over the wall and sprinted out to him. Finally he too climbed out the car – but here, he strayed from the Earnhardt legend.
Earnhardt had slowly rolled down pit road, high-fiving and hugging every person on every pit crew. It was his win, but everyone else was part of that moment.
When Dillon climbed out of his car, he just collapsed. He laid on his back on the track and smiled, staring up at the legions of fans above him.
A postrace interview forced him to articulate those emotions.
“This one is for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and all those Senior fans,” Dillon screamed into the microphone. As he did, thousands of fans roared, louder than they had all day.
Maybe louder than they had since 1998.
Childress watched the whole thing unfold before making his way to Victory Lane. He’d been there 20 years ago with Earnhardt, and Dillon, then still a child, crawled on top of the trophy. Now he’d go back with his grandson, only this time Dillon had earned the trip.
“I knew Dale as good as anyone,” Childress said, “and I know, right now, he’s up there smiling down.”
On Monday, Dillon’s car will be inducted at the track as the Daytona 500 winner. It, like Earnhardt’s two decades ago, will still have that lucky penny glued to the dash when it does.
“I think that penny deserves to stay with its owner, the car, so it’s going to stick right there,” Dillon said. “The relationship that (my grandfather) and Dale Earnhardt had was a friendship that you don’t find every day.
“I’ll never be able to re-create any of that, but to be able to go to Victory Lane for him because he’s given me everything I could ask for in my career?
“To be able to deliver a trophy back to him feels pretty darned good.”