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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Daniel Suarez fastest in final Coca-Cola 600 practice

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CONCORD, N.C. — Daniel Suarez completed a sweep of Saturday’s two Cup practice sessions by posting the top speed in final practice for the Coca-Cola 600.

Suarez recorded a speed of 180.704 mph around Charlotte Motor Speedway. He made 51 laps in the session.

“I will say one of the best (cars of his Cup career) for sure,” Suarez said. “I feel like this year I’ve had some good race cars with an opportunity to finish in the top five and top 10, but I feel like this car has been pretty solid.  It’s fast and it’s not comfortable to drive 100 percent, but I don’t feel like anyone out there is comfortable right now, so it’s been sunny and hot and slick and that makes things a little bit more difficult, but overall my team has been doing a very good job with Stewart-Haas Racing and Ford Performance.  We have a good piece and hopefully we can take advantage of it tomorrow.”

The top five was completed by Daniel Hemric (180.686 mph), Denny Hamlin (180.553), Ryan Preece (180.469) and Kyle Busch (180.276).

“I felt pretty good with our practice there,” said Hamlin, who will start 20th Sunday. “It was one of our better practices of the year. We’re going to have to start from deep in the field, which is going to be a challenge with traffic, but we’ve got a long race to get it done. Pretty happy with where we’re at.”

Busch has the best 10-lap average at 179.485 mph

Chase Elliott recorded the most laps in the session with 62. He was 18th on the speed chart.

Click here for the speed chart.

Christopher Bell wins pole for Xfinity Charlotte race

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CONCORD, N.C. —  Christopher Bell will start first in today’s Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Bell won his third pole of the season with a speed of 184.313 mph. His previous poles were at Texas Motor Speedway and ISM Raceway.

The top five is completed by Cole Custer (183.187 mph), Tyler Reddick (182.192), Austin Dillon (181.659) and Brandon Jones (181.610).

Justin Haley will start 35th after an axle broke on his No. 11 Chevrolet in the middle of his qualifying run.

Ross Chastain did not finish his qualifying run after experiencing an electrical problem in the ignition on his No. 4 Chevrolet. He will start 37th out of 38 cars.

The Alsco 300 is scheduled to start at 1:16 p.m. ET on FS1.

Click here for the starting lineup.

Check back for more.

Today’s Xfinity race at Charlotte: Start time, lineup and more

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After a two-week break, the Xfinity Series returns to action today for the Alsco 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Here’s all the info you need for today’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: North Carolina Basketball Legend Phil Ford will give the command to start engines at 1:07 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 1:16 p.m.

PRERACE: Driver/crew chief meeting is at 10:45 a.m. Driver introductions begin at 12:30 p.m. The invocation will be given at 1 p.m. by Billy Mauldin, CEO and President of Motor Racing Outreach. U. S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Marc Wilka will perform the National Anthem at 1:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 200 laps (300 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 45. Stage 2 ends on Lap 90.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. The Performance Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 12:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for a high of 90 degrees and a 20% percent chance of rain for the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Brad Keselowski won this race over Cole Custer and Christopher Bell.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Daniel Suarez fastest in second Coca-Cola 600 practice

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CONCORD, N.C. — Daniel Suarez topped the speed chart in Saturday’s first Cup Series practice for the Coca-Cola 600.

Suarez posted a top speed of 182.143 mph around the 1.5-mile track.

The top five was filled out by defending 600 winner Kyle Busch (182.051 mph), Austin Dillon (181.488), Ryan Blaney (181.397) and Kevin Harvick (181.366).

Denny Hamlin, who was sixth on the chart, recorded the most laps with 52.

Dillon had the best 10-lap average at 180.639 mph.

Ryan Newman got into the Turn 3 wall as the session ended and suffered significant damage to the right side of his No. 6 Ford. The team is repairing the car.

Final practice is set for 11:05 a.m. ET

Click here for the speed chart.