Austin Dillon wins Daytona 500 in last-lap bump and wreck of race leader Aric Almirola

Aric Almirola is sent into the outside wall on the last lap off the Daytona 500 / Headline SurferYouTube download / NASCAR video / Highlights of the 2018 Daytona 500 won by Austin Dillon after he bumped then-race leader Aric Almiroa on the final lap and sent him into the outside wall (as shown in the photo here) before Dillon took the checkered flag.
 
By HENRY FREDERICK
Headline Surfer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Twenty years had passed since Dale Earnhardt ended a career-long drought by winning the Daytona 500 in the famed No. 3 Chevrolet of car owner Richard Childress.

Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon took the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway with a last-lap, bump-and-run move that was trademark Earnhardt, in the 60th running of the Great American Race, the season-opener in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

A lap 199 late-race incident took out a number of front-running contenders and forced two extra laps of “NASCAR Overtime.” On the first OT lap, Tampa native Aric Almirola (No. 10 Smithfield Ford) assumed the lead and as the final lap transpired, he appeared headed toward the victory. 

But as the lead pack approached Turn 3, Dillion – with a considerable aerodynamic push from the No. 43 Click n’ Close Chevrolet of Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. – made a run in his Dow-sponsored car for the front. However, he was blocked by Almirola.

Dillon kept going, tapping the rear bumper of Almirola, which sent the Ford into the wall. Dillon and Wallace continued on to the finish line, with Dillon the winner by 0.260 seconds. Denny Hamlin, in the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota, the 2016 Daytona 500 champion, finished third. 

“I did what I had to do,” Dillon said after the race, in justifying his aggressive driving. “He was trying to block me and I just turned him. We had a run and I stayed in the gas. It’s so awesome to take the No. 3 car back to victory lane. This one is for Dale Earnhardt and all those Earnhardt fans. We’re going to keep kicking butt for the rest of the year.”

Austin Dillon and Richard Childress answer media questions after the driver's win in the Daytona 500/ Headline SurferShown here are driver Austin Dillion and car owner Richard Childress, in a press conference in the media Center at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday following Dillon's victory in the Daytona 500.

It was Dillon's controversial last lap bump that sent then-race leader Aric Almirola crashing into the outside wall and Dillon taking the lead  and the checkered flag.

Austin Dillon tapped the rear bumper of Almirola, which sent the Ford into the wall. Dillon and Wallace continued on to the finish line, with Dillon the winner by 0.260 seconds. Denny Hamlin, in the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota, the 2016 Daytona 500 champion, finished third. 

“I did what I had to do,” Dillon said after the race, in justifying his aggressive driving. “He was trying to block me and I just turned him. We had a run and I stayed in the gas. It’s so awesome to take the No. 3 car back to victory lane. This one is for Dale Earnhardt and all those Earnhardt fans. We’re going to keep kicking butt for the rest of the year.”

Wallace lived his own emotional experience Sunday. His presence was steeped in storylines. Series rookie … returning a Richard Petty Motorsports car to DAYTONA 500 contention ... first African-American in the Daytona 500 since Wendell Scott in 1969. And now, a runner-up in NASCAR’s biggest race. That is the best finish in the Daytona 500 by an African-American, besting the 13th-place finish by Scott in 1966.

And there’s more to Wallace’s story: he got a surprise pre-race vote of confidence via a phone call from baseball hall of famer Hank Aaron.

“I have so many emotions going on right now,” Wallace said. “Thank you to ‘The King’ (Petty) for giving me this opportunity.” 

Attrition was the name of this Daytona 500 game, with a series of incidents that took out high-profile contenders. As those drivers were dropping out with stunning regularity during the sun-splashed afternoon, Dillon hung around – and hung tough.

At day’s end, the 27-year-old who was a wide-eyed seven-year-old in Gatorade Victory Lane when Earnhardt won, had his own piece of DAYTONA 500 history.

And Richard Childress had a second, as far as the No. 3 is concerned.

“The emotions are just flowing,” a tearful Childress said. “This is just so special.”

The Daytona 500 was run in three stages over its 200-lap/500-mile distance on the 2.5-mile, high-banked DIS tri-oval.

In NASCAR’s stage-racing format, valuable extra points that count in the season-long series championship battle are awarded to the top-10 finishers in each of the first two stages. The first two stages were each 60 laps while the third was 80 laps. 

Defending Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch, driving the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Ford, won the first stage which was bookended by significant developments. During the race’s first caution period, Hamlin was penalized one lap for pitting outside his box, giving him a hill to climb the rest of the day.

On the stage’s final lap a nine-car backstretch incident ruined the hopes of several contenders including two-time race champion Jimmie Johnson, in the No. 48 Lowe’s for Pros Chevrolet. Also, former Monster Energy champion Kyle Busch, wheeling the No 18 M&M’s Toyota, crashed on Lap 51 in Turn 3, necessitating an extensive pit shop for repairs.

Stage 2 was won by Ryan Blaney in the No. 12 Menards/Peak Ford. Blaney led 48 of the stage’s 60 laps, including the last 22 laps. He was among the drivers involved in the Lap 199 mishap, but rebounded to finish seventh.

Racing in NASCAR for the final time, Danica Patrick, in the No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet, started strongly but ended up 35th after her involvement in a dramatic Turn 3 crash on Lap 102. The accident started when Chase Elliott, in the 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, one of the pre-race favorites, slammed into the Turn 4 wall after contact with Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Discount Tire Ford. The incident also ended the day for 2007 Daytona 500 champion Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford.

“It just wasn’t meant to be today,” Patrick said. “I’m grateful for everything … thank you to all the fans.”

Patrick will race in the Indianapolis 500 in May for a final time as well. 

Editor's Note: The writer was unable to attend the race for for only the second time in 20 years due to health issues. Information from NASCAR was used to supplement this story.
 
 
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Henry Frederick is publisher of Headline Surfer®, the award-winning 24/7 internet news outlet covering the Daytona Beach-Sanford-Orlando metro area via HeadlineSurfer.com for a decade now. A longtime cops & courts reporter focused on breaking news & investigative reporting, Frederick is among the Sunshine State's most prolific daily news reporters, having amassed dozens of journalism-industry awards in print anddigital platforms. Frederick is enrolled at Full Sail University in Winter Garden, FL, where he's three-fourths through the online Master of Arts program in New Media Journalism. His graduation is in August.