At Daytona, Austin Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr. Break Through Behind Familiar Numbers

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Nascar’s most famous racecar numbers — 3 and 43 — finished in first and second place on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. But it wasn’t stock car racing’s two best-known names — Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty — who took the checkered flag and finished runner-up.

Instead it was Austin Dillon (No. 3) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (43).

A generation ago, Nascar would have loved a one-two finish from Earnhardt, who raced in the No. 3 car, and Petty, who had No. 43. But the sport will gladly embrace the two story lines it got on Sunday.

A rookie, Wallace is the only African-American driver in Nascar’s top level and has been promoted as one of the sport’s bright young stars. This off-season, Petty hired him to drive his old No. 43 car, and already that decision is paying off. By taking second, Wallace became the highest-finishing African-American in the history of the Daytona 500, bettering Wendell Scott’s 13th-place finish in 1966.

The trophy on Sunday went to Dillon, the grandson of Richard Childress, who was Earnhardt’s best friend. Earnhardt raced for Childress’s team when he won his only Daytona 500, in 1998. That day, a 7-year-old boy was there in Victory Lane, soaking it all in — Austin Dillon.

“I don’t know what it is about story lines and Daytona,” Dillon said. “But this place just makes history.”

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.”

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.

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