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Column: Daytona 500 thriller is a blast from NASCAR’s past and a victory for its future

Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the Daytona 500 on Sunday.
(Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be retired, but Dale Earnhardt Sr. still lives on in Daytona.

He no longer lives through his son’s presence on the race track, but he came back to life Sunday through the iconic No. 3 Chevy that Austin Dillon drove to his first Daytona 500 victory.

And, appropriately, Dillon did it just as the Intimidator himself would have done it — by driving right through race leader Aric Almirola on the last lap, spinning him out of the way, wrecking him and winning on the 20-year anniversary of Dale Sr.’s only Daytona 500 victory.

As Senior himself might have said, “You win some, you lose some, you wreck some.”

This crash-marred 60th running of the Great American Race not only took us on a journey through NASCAR’s proud past, but it also gave us a glimpse into the sport’s bright future. With Dillon taking the checkered flag and charismatic and hard-charging African-American driver Bubba Wallace finishing second, it’s full speed ahead for NASCAR.

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

Just when you thought the Earnhardt era was ending with Junior’s retirement after last season, this hair-raising moment happens. Dillon — driving for his grandfather, Dale Sr.’s car owner Richard Childress — not only drove the No. 3 Earnhardt made famous into Victory Lane, but he also celebrated as Earnhardt did in 1998: by doing a burnout in the shape of a 3 in the infield grass.

And just as a little boy gave Dale Sr. a lucky penny before the Daytona victory two decades ago, Dillon also got a lucky penny from a kid just before the race.

“It’s incredible to come back 20 years after celebrating with Dale and now celebrating with my grandson driving the No. 3,” Childress said. “What a storybook race. I’m speechless.”

If ever there was a question about whether NASCAR would be in good hands after the retirement of Dale Jr., this race answered it. Not only did Dillon win it and evoke the memory of the Intimidator, but also Wallace conjured up memories of the King.

Driving car owner Richard Petty’s legendary No. 43, Wallace turned this race into the Diversity 500. The first African-American driver to start a Daytona 500 since 1969, Wallace broke down in tears as he hugged his mother and sister before the post-race media conference.

“Pull it together, bud,” Wallace implored himself through a cracking voice as he wiped tears from his eyes and tried to regain his composure. “I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do, and my family pushes me because I just want to make them proud.”

Wallace no doubt made many African Americans proud Sunday. Because of NASCAR’s Southern heritage and the Confederate flags that still fly at some tracks, Wallace is an important figure in a sport trying to bury some of its skeletons. This is why Hank Aaron called Wallace before the race and Dale Jr. sat down with him earlier this week to offer advice on dealing with pressure. And if anybody knows the burden of expectations, it’s Junior.

These are the moments and story lines that NASCAR needs now that Junior has called it quits. There’s no question Junior’s emergence helped save NASCAR in the wake of his father’s death at this very track 17 years ago. However, his exit may be just as important to the growth and development of a sport that has struggled to get up to speed.

This race was significant for many reasons but mainly because it was the first Daytona 500 of the post-Earnhardt era; the first in four decades without the name Dale Earnhardt — either Junior or Senior — in the starting grid.

Even though Junior didn’t compete Sunday, he did serve as the grand marshal. Considering this was the symbolic passing of the torch, Junior should have started the race with this proclamation to the competitors: “Gentlemen, it’s up to you now!”

Junior’s departure no doubt leaves a void in NASCAR, but it also opens up an incredible opportunity for the sport. As much as he meant to NASCAR, his mere presence and popularity often overshadowed more deserving drivers and story lines.

“Hopefully people are tuning in and noticing the new faces that are coming to NASCAR,” Wallace said.

Added Dillon: “The drivers that have led our sport for so long have kind of moved out. I think NASCAR fans are going to love what they see.”

So far, so good.

A blast through the past and blast off into the future.

A lucky penny for your thoughts.

sports@latimes.com


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