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Austin Dillon wins Daytona 500 in iconic No. 3, 17 years after Earnhardt’s death

Austin Dillon celebrates in Victory Lane after winning

Austin Dillon celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Terry Renna) Credit: AP / Terry Renna

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Austin Dillon put the No. 3 back in victory lane in the Daytona 500.

Dillon won it by driving the iconic car number made famous by Dale Earnhardt 17 years to the day the Hall of Famer was killed in an accident on the final lap of the Daytona 500. The win also comes during the 20th anniversary celebration of Earnhardt’s only victory in “The Great American Race.”

Dillon wasn’t a factor in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet until the final lap in overtime when he got a push from Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. that helped him get to leader Aric Almirola.

Dillon spun Almirola then whizzed on by to give Childress, his grandfather, an iconic victory in that beloved No. 3.

“My grandfather has done everything for me and everybody knows it,” Dillon said. “There’s a lot of pressure on me to perform because I’ve had a little bit of everything. But I like that pressure, the same with the No. 3, there’s a lot of pressure behind it, but I’m willing to take it and go with it.”

As for the aggressive move that wrecked Almirola? Dillon was doing what has to be done to win at Daytona.

“We just had a run and I stayed on the gas. It’s what it is when you’re at Daytona,” he said. “It is so awesome to take the 3 car back to victory lane, 20 years ago. This one’s for Dale Earnhardt Senior and all those Senior fans. I love you guys. We’re going to keep kicking butt the rest of the year.”

Childress was overjoyed.

“The emotions [are] just flowing . . . to be able to win, with the 3 car, having it in the winner’s circle, my grandson, 20 years after Dale won in ’98, so special,” he said.

The final scoring tower showed the No. 3 on top, then the No. 43 — two of the most seminal numbers in NASCAR.

Wallace, the first black driver in the Daytona 500 field since 1969, finished second in a 1-2 finish for Chevrolet and Childress’ engine program.

Wallace drives the No. 43 car for Richard Petty and sobbed in his post-race news conference after his mother came to the front of the room to give him a hug. The two had a long embrace in which she told Wallace repeatedly “you finally did it.”

After another moment with his sister, Wallace sat at the dais sobbing into a towel. His finish is the highest for a black driver since Wendell Scott was 13th in 1966.

“Pull it together, bud, pull it together. You just finished second,” he told himself.

Wallace, from Mobile, Alabama, received a telephone call from Hank Aaron before the race and Lewis Hamilton, the four-time Formula One world champion and only black driver in that series, tweeted his support to Wallace.

Denny Hamlin, the 2016 winner, finished third in a Toyota. Ryan Blaney, who led a race-high 118 laps, faded to seventh after giving the win away in regulation. He wrecked Kurt Busch, the defending race winner, trying to reclaim his lead and the contact damaged Blaney’s Ford.

The day also was a bust for Danica Patrick, who made the Daytona 500 her final NASCAR race. With new boyfriend NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers cheering her on, Patrick was collected in an accident and finished 35th. The only woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500 and win the pole for this race told a story about an exchange she had earlier this week with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.

“He said his last Daytona didn’t go well, either, and I was like ‘Oh wow, I don’t remember that. I remember your career.’ So I hope that is how it is with me with everybody,” she said.

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