DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Feb. 18 is the date everyone at Daytona International Speedway always dreads when it turns up on the calendar. Every other two-digit February day brought anniversaries, stories and smiles. Just this week, during the Daytona 500’s 60th anniversary celebration, each day was marked by memories. It was capped by Thursday’s 20th anniversary of perhaps the track’s greatest moment: when Dale Earnhardt finally captured his elusive Daytona 500 victory in his 20th attempt.
But no one woke up on Sunday morning of the Daytona 500 and felt like commemorating a damn thing. And it’s been that way for seventeen years — ever since Earnhardt hit the wall in Turn Four and left this mortal coil. Not his team, RCR, or his best friend and car owner, Richard Childress, or the grandstand packed with fanatics wearing his famous car number, the slanted 3. They started weeping that night, and every year, on Feb. 18, many weep again.
Then, that team, that friend and that slanted three, they all went and saved Feb. 18, at least this time around, and they did it in a very Intimidator-like fashion. Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson, led one lap — the last one — after contact sent then-leader Aric Almirola spinning while the field entered the final set of turns in a Daytona 500 that finished in overtime.
“I stood in this Victory Lane in 1998; I was 7,” the now-27-year old Dillon recalled Sunday night, his firesuit soaking in champagne, as he turned and pointed at the massive Harley J. Earl Trophy behind him, engraved with the names of the 38 previous Daytona 500 champions. “My mom [Childress’ daughter] had to call me down because I kept climbing on top of that trophy. Now, I am going to go up there and climb all over it myself. It’s mine now, right? I don’t think anyone will yell at me now, will they?”
Dillon’s entire racing career has seen him been yelled at by Earnhardt fans. Why? Because they believe that Dillon running that number — Dale’s number — has been blasphemous.
It has never seemed to matter that the number was originally driven by Childress as a struggling driver-owner who gave up his seat when his friend Earnhardt came looking for a ride in 1981. They won six championships, that 1998 Daytona 500, and became blue-collar deities. It has never seemed to matter to Earnhardt fans that Dillon has run that number nearly his entire 27-year life, winning races at every level of the stock car-racing ladder.
It has never even seemed to matter that photos of little Austin are scattered throughout the Richard Childress Racing Museum, standing alongside Childress, aka “Pop-Pop” and, yes, Dale Sr. Or that Earnhardt and Childress years ago had talked about a future when the Dillon boys — Austin and little brother Ty — drove for RCR with one of them using that number. Or even that Childress went to Earnhardt’s kids, Kelley and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and received their approval.
None of it mattered.
Why? Because Intimidator Nation loves that number. They wear it on their clothes and their skin. They hold up three-fingered salutes. It takes them back to the good times. But it also makes them hurt. Seeing Dillon with that digit on his door has always caused them to feel both emotions at once, especially when he started slinging his version of the No. 3 ride into the Daytona high banks that built the Earnhardt legend but also took the legend away.
Thing is, Dillon feels that, too.
“I was so sad that day and for so many days after that,” he said of Feb. 18, 2001. “I looked up to Dale so much. I would watch him race, but really, it was watching the way that he and my grandfather worked together and became such incredible friends. I saw how much my grandfather hurt that day and how he almost packed it up, just quit racing altogether. But he had promised Dale to keep going, no matter what. Then I saw how hard he worked to save what he and Dale built. I lived through all of that. I lived it up close.”
The newest Daytona 500 champion turned his eyes toward Pop-Pop celebrating on the stage behind him. “For that man to trust me with keeping that going … I hope no one ever thinks that I haven’t made it the work of my life to keep that going. To get this team and this number back to the top of NASCAR, where it belongs. Because I have. Every damn day.”
“I don’t know if people really understood how much pressure Austin felt when he took over that car in the Cup Series,” Childress said in between Victory Lane hugs. “I told the Dale Earnhardt fans to be patient and they’d get their payoff. I hope that’s how they see this tonight. This is for them.”
It won’t be for them all. It never will be. Simply posting that quote to social media sparked an immediate digital pushback from those claiming to be Earnhardt-only supporters of the slanted 3. No, we can’t know exactly what Dale Earnhardt would have truly felt had he seen his old car pulled onto stock car racing’s most hallowed slab of concrete on Sunday night, covered in tears and confetti. But Earnhardt’s friend and empire co-constructor has a pretty good idea.
“Dale would put his arm around Austin, put him in that iron grip, and he would congratulate him,” Childress continued. “He would be happy for him. He would thank him for getting his car back into Victory Lane at Daytona. He would thank him for getting all of us back into Victory Lane. Dale would thank him for tonight.”