Long: Past, present come together for thrilling Daytona 500 finish

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The kids paid homage to history and became part of it after Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Against a purplish sky, as day transitioned to night at Daytona International Speedway, the scoring towers blazed with the No. 3 and No. 43 in the top two spots. Not since April 1987 at Bristol have those iconic numbers stood together atop the results of a NASCAR Cup race.

But instead of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty in those cars, it was Austin Dillon piloting the No. 3 to the victory and rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. driving the No. 43 to a runner-up finish.

And in a nod to the sport’s rough-and-tumble days, the car ahead of the No. 3 on the final lap spun out of the lead after contact. A trail of sparks and smoke produced the lasting image of Aric Almirola’s car instead of it covered in confetti in Victory Lane.

Almirola, though, held no grudge against Dillon.

After all, that’s just racin’.

That’s what the public wants. The sport has faced a tug-of-war with fans ton how to make the racing more exciting. Older fans long for past days, recalling the rivalries but overlooking that the competition wasn’t always so balanced. New fans need more to keep engaged.

Stages were added last year to enhance the racing. It created chaos Sunday. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and youngsters Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Ty Dillon were eliminated through no fault of their own in a crash just before the first stage ended.

That was one of four multi-car crashes. Each time wayward cars avoided the path Dillon and Wallace took.

Then again, both Dillon and Wallace have taken their own paths through the years.

Dillon, the grandson of car owner Richard Childress, drove the No. 3 when he raced as a child. To NASCAR fans that number represented Earnhardt and became sacred after his death on the last lap of this race in 2001.

Childress admits he was “ready to get out of the sport” after the death of his best friend. What was left? His friend was gone.

“The relationship that him and Dale Earnhardt had was a friendship that you don’t find every day,’’ Dillon said. “I mean, it’s one of those friendships, a best friend that you trust and you love. I could tell how much as I grew older their friendship meant and still wears on him because he misses him.’’

Childress recalled a conversation he and Earnhardt had on a mountain in New Mexico during a hunting trip. The two men reflected upon their mortality. They agreed to go on if something happened to the other.

With that, Childress kept racing through the sadness and emptiness.

Then something came along to lift Childress’ spirits. His grandsons Austin and Ty. Both played sports but followed their father into racing. Childress backed them in the early days and groomed them, hoping they could carry Richard Childress Racing further.

As Austin Dillon progressed, he and Childress had a conversation about the No. 3. Dillon still used it but the closer he moved to NASCAR’s national series, the touchier the subject was for some.

“That was Dale’s number,’’ Childress reminded Austin.

“No it isn’t,’’ Austin told pop-pop. “It’s your number. You drove it, and that’s why I want to do it.’’

Childress was convinced that Dillon should continue to drive it in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series. The number had not run a Cup race since Earnhardt’s death on Feb. 18, 2001. Until Austin did in 2014.

For Wallace, who has raced since a child, it is race that sets him apart.

He became the first African-American to compete in the Daytona 500 since Wendell Scott in 1969. Wallace’s achievement earned a tweet from Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton wishing him well.

“I got weak at the knees,’’ Wallace said.

Before he climbed into his car, Wallace was given the phone. Former Major League Baseball home run record holder Hank Aaron wanted to wish him good luck.

“Just knowing that people are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that’s coming to NASCAR and they get behind it and support it. Just exciting,’’ Wallace said.

Still, both drivers — essentially teammates with Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports in an alliance — were not the main story entering the 60th running of this race.

Dillon didn’t have time to ponder such things before Sunday’s race.

He was trying to console his wife about 90 minutes before the race. Dillon couldn’t understand why his wife cried as they prayed with family members in their motorhome.

‘’Are you okay?’’ Dillon asked Whitney. “What’s wrong?’’

Dillon’s words were not soothing.

“She kind of got mad at me for like, why are you crying,’’ he said. “She stormed off. So I walked back to the bathroom, like, ‘Babe, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?’’

“I get emotional when it comes to you,’’ Whitney told him.

“That’s good, but it’s okay, I’m going to be okay, it’s all good,’’ Dillon reassured. “We had it out there for a second, and I was like, ‘Look, before I get in this race car, my mind has got to be right, so tell me you love me.’ And she’s like, ‘I love you. That’s why I’m crying.’ ’’

Then she told him something else.

“This one is not going to be easy,’’ she said of the race.

“You’re not going to lead every lap and be up front much, but you’re going to do it when it’s clutch, you’re going to win when it matters, on the last lap,’’ she said.

It wasn’t just Whitney’s words with him. He had a lucky penny in his car — just as Earnhardt had in the No. 3 car when he won the 1998 Daytona 500.

Dillon got the penny earlier this week while doing an autograph session outside the garage. A child in a white Ford hat came through the line. Dillon, a Chevrolet driver, took off his hat, signed it and gave it to the child.

“I’ve got to be your favorite driver, right?’’ Dillon told the child he estimated to be 8 years old.

The next day, Dillon saw the child wearing his hat outside the garage fence. Dillon approached him. The child gave Dillon a penny that he put in his car.

Between Whitney’s words and the penny, Dillon only led only the final lap. Actually, he led less than half a lap, taking the lead after the contact with Almirola.

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him,’’ Dillon said. “I guess that was my other option, give up a Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing. I don’t know, I’m glad he’s not mad. If he needs to do it to me at Talladega for everybody to feel good, I’ve got a Daytona 500 championship trophy, ring, whatever. I don’t care. I’ve got the 3 back in Victory Lane.’’

Back where Dillon was in 1998 as a 7-year-old, celebrating Earnhardt’s win that day and collecting all the sponsor hats the team wore.

Sunday, they were in Victory Lane for him. Childress and the team laughed, sprayed champagne and celebrated a night they hadn’t enjoyed after the Daytona 500 since last winning it in 2007.

As the team members posed for pictures with their sponsor hats, they didn’t raise their index finger to signal they were No. 1 as they cheered.

They didn’t raise two fingers for the number of Cup wins Dillon now has.

They raised three fingers.

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NASCAR America: Dog days of summer can challenge teams in many ways

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Today is the first day of summer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows better than most how hot temperatures can change a driver’s season.

The dog days of summer 2004 contributed to the breakup of Junior’s team.

“If the car’s not running well, the driver’s got to bite his tongue,” Earnhardt said. “If he doesn’t bite his tongue, he gets snappy at the team. The team gets frustrated. A team can literally unravel as the season goes. Me and Tony (Eury) Jr., Tony (Eury) Sr. won six races in 2004 going into the playoffs and we split up at the end of the year because we were so upset and mad at each other at the end of the season. The heat can do that.”

Being trapped inside the car in unbearable heat takes a toll on the driver – but it also wears on the crew.

“I don’t think it translates well over to the public how hot it is throughout the weekend in the summer races. The humidity in Michigan – it’s a 120, 130 degrees inside the cars. The crews are dealing with this heat in the garage during practice.”

Critical moments exacerbated by heat in the next five races might very well decide who wins and loses the championship once the cooler temperatures of fall arrive.

“If you’re not running well – you’re inside that car during practice. You can’t get out, they’re making a change and sending you back out. You’re sweating, you’re miserable, the car’s not responding. If you say the wrong thing, it can set the tone for the entire weekend.”

And the entire season, like it did for Earnhardt in 2004.

“For drivers that can handle that kind of heat and handle that frustration when things aren’t quite right, those guys will excel and not stub their toe, not make those mistakes going into the playoffs,” Earnhardt said.

For more, watch the video above.

NASCAR America: Better equipment, skilled drivers changed road racing

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The Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway is the first of three road course races on the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar and the preparation involved in setting up these cars is much greater today than it has been in the past, according to NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett.

“I think the same emphasis is put in those two road course races and the cars that will be in those races,” Earnhardt said. “And now the Roval that will be at Charlotte – being a very important race in the playoffs – these road course racers are even more important.”

Man and machine need to be equal to the challenge.

“Not only is the emphasis more on the drivers to prepare and learn how to become road course racers, but there is a lot more emphasis on the cars too,” Earnhardt said. “All the cars are so much more similar and there is a lot more dedication to preparing the cars for these particular races. It’s almost like there is as much effort into putting a good road course car on the track as there is speedway cars – like Daytona and Talladega cars.”

Even the best driver cannot compete in equipment that is not up to the challenge and it took some outside expertise to raise NASCAR to the level of other marquee road racing series mechanically. Car owners like Jack Roush and road ringers like Boris Said contributed to the evolution of the racing discipline.

“The cars are so much better now than when we started,” Dale Jarrett said. “Whenever I got started in the Cup series fulltime in ’87, there were a couple of good road racers – and I think of Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace … but Jack Roush brought something totally new into the sport a little later in the 80s and early 90s. … Their equipment was a little bit better because they understood road racing a little more. Now everybody has all that.”

Jarrett recalled what he believes might be one of the biggest upsets of his career. He won the pole for the 2001 Global Crossing at the Glen because he received a tip from Said, who told him he was not getting deep enough into the corners because his brakes were not good enough.

“You talk about road course ringers: Boris Said and Ron Fellows and some other guys coming in,” Jarrett said. “One of the things that helped them, they were better because they did it all the time, but they also would tell the teams they were going to drive for, ‘hey, there’s a lot better braking and other things out there that you can do.’ They came in and they had better equipment, which made them look even that much better than what we were.”

For more, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett preview upcoming races

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his weekly appearance on the show.

Krista Voda hosts with Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett from the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

On today’s show:

· Not long ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bragged about his ability to remember who he’s beaten for wins in past races. In this episode, we’ll test his memory in a trivia game called “Who Did Junior Pass For The Win?” We’ll be taking your questions for Junior throughout the show. Just send it on social media with the hashtag #Wednesdale.

· Sonoma begins a critical summer stretch for the Monster Energy Cup Series. With Chicagoland, Daytona, Kentucky and New Hampshire on the horizon, teams will be challenged and playoff hopes will rise and fall. Dale Jr. & Dale Jarrett preview the upcoming races.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones at Sonoma

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Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones when the series visits Sonoma Raceway this weekend.

Ryan Newman leads the way with his 600th Cup start.

The Richard Childress Racing driver will become the 28th driver to reach the mark. His first start came on Nov. 5, 2000 at ISM Raceway with Team Penske.

Newman is one of four remaining active Cup drivers, including Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Derrike Cope, who competed against Dale Earnhardt in a Cup points race. Only Newman and Busch compete full-time.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin will make his 450th start. He will become the 52nd driver to reach that mark.

Hamlin’s first start came on Oct. 9, 2005 at Kansas Speedway. All of his starts have been with JGR.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will make his 200th career start. He will be the 132nd driver to reach that mark.

Stenhouse’s first start came in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 with Wood Brothers Racing when he substituted for Trevor Bayne, who was out due to illness. Every other start has been with Roush Fenway Racing.

The last race at Michigan International Speedway saw AJ Allmendinger make his 350th Cup start. 71 drivers have reached that mark.