Austin Dillon, who was not among the top-8 drivers on Lap 198, dumped race leader Aric Almirola on the last overtime lap (207) and captured the 60th Daytona 500 before 120,000 sun-soaked spectators at Daytona International Speedway.
DAYTONA BEACH — Forget about ride heights, smaller pit crews, stage racing and wrecks because Sunday’s Daytona 500 was all about the super emotions generated on the final lap by NASCAR’s most prestigious race. Austin Dillon, who was not among the top-8 drivers on Lap 198, dumped race leader Aric Almirola on the last overtime lap (207) and captured the 60th Daytona 500 before 120,000 sun-soaked spectators at Daytona International Speedway. “We went down the backstretch, had a run, went low, the No. 43 (Wallace) went low and I just had more momentum than he (Almirola) did and caught him,” said Dillon. “It turned him, but heck we won the Daytona 500 (and) we are sitting here now.” The 27-year-old driver was pushed to the front by rookie and pseudo teammate Bubba Wallace, who made his full-time NASCAR Cup Series debut in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. RPM has a shop in the Childress Racing compound. For the second time in as many years, the 500 winner led only one lap to score an improbable victory. On this day, yellow flags worked in Dillon’s favor. A caution on Lap 199 for a wreck that involved 12 cars in Turn 2 set the table for his victory, because when the field reassembled for a two-lap dash, he was fourth in line behind Almirola. Dillon and Wallace got a run on the outside lane and when Almirola moved up to block, he got taken out. Almirola shrugged off the contact. “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.” Dillon shot ahead in Turn 4 and left Wallace and Denny Hamlin to battle it out for second-place honors. They rubbed sheet metal to the finish line, with Wallace scoring runner-up honors. “I got the rookie stripes for a reason, so making some of those moves today I was a little bit delayed and a little bit late and luckily kept out of harm's way,” Wallace said. This Daytona 500 transcended a normal day of NASCAR racing. This was an afternoon packed with tears of joy. Twenty years ago, Dale Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 after two decades of frustrating misfires. When the “Intimidator” died in 2001, Richard Childress Racing took the car number out of service. Austin Dillon coaxed his grandfather “Pop Pop” Childress to bring Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevrolet out of hiding in 2014, and as the racing fates would have it, the 27-year-old driver made that stock car a Daytona winner again. “Daytona has a way with just making memories,” said Dillon, who was 7 when Earnhardt won this race in 1998. “This place makes memory after memory and they are life-changing memories and I was fortunate to be in Victory Lane 20 years ago and I’m here again.” Wallace, who is the first African-American driver to run a full Cup Series schedule in four decades, was overcome by feelings when his mother appeared in the media center for a hug. “That makes you feel good,” the tearful, 24-year-old driver said. “It definitely pulls on your heartstrings a little bit.” The race was competitive from the get-go. The lead changed hands 15 times by Lap 123 as drivers jockeyed for Stage points on Lap 60 and Lap 120. The jostling created two caution periods involving a total of 16 cars. The second of those eliminated Danica Patrick’s No. 7 Chevrolet. Patrick was making her last NASCAR start. “It wasn’t meant to be,” said Patrick, who will compete in the Indy 500 in May. The last two cautions set the table for Dillon. First, William Byron spun off Turn 4 on Lap 190, and the second moved him up into the top-5 runners. With the field bunched and everybody dreaming of standing in Victory Lane, a “big one” crash seemed almost inevitable. In this case it was Hamlin throwing a block on 2017 Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch, who checked up and was turned around by Ryan Blaney, who led a race-high 118 laps in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford. The two late yellow flags derailed Blaney’s charge to victory. He wound up seventh. “It was just hard racing,” Blaney said. “I was trying to be aggressive blocking the lead. “I feel bad about that (running into Busch). He kind of changed lanes last-minute, and I couldn’t react quick enough. It stinks. We led a lot of laps. It just wasn’t meant to be. But it was a good showing.”