Not only did Dillon win in the No. 3 car, the Daytona 500’s honorary starter was the recently retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. And Dillon’s win came on the 17th anniversary of the race in which the elder Earnhardt was killed when he crashed on the final lap.
In a nod to Earnhardt Sr.’s celebration 20 years ago, Dillon celebrated by spinning the No. 3 car on the infield grass.
“This is so awesome to take the No. 3 car back to Victory Lane 20 years later,” Dillon said. “This one is for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and all those Sr. fans. I love you guys.”
Seemingly channeling Earnhardt, who went by the nickname The Intimidator, Dillon bumped the leader Aric Almirola on the last lap, pushing him into the wall before zooming past. Almirola, who had raced in Petty’s No. 43 car last year, fell back all the way to 11th.
Almirola said he understood.
“It was the last lap and we’re all trying to win the Daytona 500,” he said. “We were just racing aggressively. I put every move I knew to try and stay in the lead and, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to hold on.”
Social media, however, skewered Dillon.
“I don’t care, I won the Daytona 500,” Dillon said, noting that Almirola had thrown up a block.
“I’m glad he’s not mad,” Dillon added, referring to Almirola. “If he needs to do it at Talladega to make himself feel good, I don’t care.”
In finishing second, Wallace seemed just as exuberant as Dillon. As he took the interview podium in the media workroom, his mother, Desiree Wallace, ran up and hugged her son as both melted into tears. As the embrace continued for more than a minute, Wallace said to his mother, “You act like I won the race.”
“We did,” she responded.
Before the start, Wallace had received well-wishes from the four-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton, who, like Wallace, is biracial.
And then, minutes before the race, Wallace was told he had an important phone call — from Hank Aaron, who, like Wallace, was born in Mobile, Ala.
“He said good luck, and just have a good race,” Wallace said. “He knew that we were pressed for time. That was cool.”
Wallace wiped away tears throughout his post-race news conference, his voice often cracking.
“No matter what the circumstances are, when you have family here and you run good and it’s been a while since you’ve been somewhat competitive, it pulls on the heartstrings. I’m human. No matter if I race cars for a living and enjoy doing it, at the end of the day we all get emotional about something.”
After the race, Wallace encountered Petty, who tried to contain his emotions — which initially didn’t appear to be pleasant. Wallace had managed to dodge all the wrecks for the whole race — one of which knocked out Danica Patrick, prematurely ending her final Nascar race — until the final lap when he got bumped into the wall by Denny Hamlin.
Wallace said Petty appeared livid when he first saw him after the race.
“He walked in and says, ‘What’s the first thing I told you?’” Wallace recalled. “And he has a stern attitude and look. And I’m like, ‘Umm.’ And he says, ‘I told you not to wreck the car.’ So we shared a good laugh, and he came and gave me a big hug after that.”
While it may have been new faces in the No. 3 and 43 cars, they offered an optimistic outlook for the sport.
“It’s really special just knowing that people are tuning in,” Wallace said, “and hopefully noticing the new faces and the new changes that’s coming to Nascar and they’re getting behind it and supporting it. Just exciting.”