February 15, 1998 I woke up in Army Basic Training barracks. I went to chow, church, and came back to clean the room. Nothing more would happen that day. No television, no radio, there wasn’t even email allowed back then. It would take two weeks before one of my roommates would tell me that in a letter from his wife, he was told that Dale Earnhardt Sr. won THE Daytona 500. When first I heard I thought, “No way, Dale doesn’t win the 500. EVER!” It would be months before I even saw a picture and years before I would see that race.
February 18, 2018 I woke up and readied myself for this year’s Daytona 500. Through a morning of coffee and complaints, laughs, and ribbing my friend via text, we got excited for the race. I watched so much pre-race I thought the race might not live up to the hype, to all the hoopla that surrounded it. Interview after interview and prediction after prediction I waited for something that would make me cheer.
Finally, the ceremony began. The prayer, the national anthem, the command to start engines. Crews, wives, girlfriends put their drivers in their cars. Belts were tightened and the pace car began to roll. The starting lineup would be shuffled from incidents in the Twin 150’s and this would find Austin Dillon starting from the rear of the pack.
“Austin, have a good day out there. Guys have a good day in the pits. Let’s be there at the end and we can win.” The familiar voice of Richard Childress came across the radio. Every race Richard says something similar and this signals the start of the race.
“First stage here is 60 laps, total of 200. Gonna be a good day here and I’ll see you in Victory Lane.” Andy Houston always breaks the race down to segments and always tells Austin he will see him after. Sometimes he will just say see you, but today it was Victory Lane.
All of Speedweeks the 3 team had shown speed in the new Dow livery. Austin charged from the back up through the field before being hung out. Austin could see the competition getting wild and backed out, content to let others fight for stage points. Dealing with a tight race car, the team waited for pit stops to put tires on, fuel in, and get some adjustments made to help. Throughout the middle of the race, Austin hung back, dodging wrecks, avoiding debris, and keeping the car clean.
“I have t even really pushed to be totally honest.” Austin told Justin well into the final segment. Nobody had really taken tires throughout the day. Austin saved his tires for when he needed them. With the new 4+1 pit crew roster and slower air guns, teams couldn’t afford to give up time, so it was left to the driver to take care of his equipment.
“The Fords are all coming, the Fords are coming, we will come too.” Late in the final stage the 3 team would be snookered by the #17 team into pitting at the wrong time. When the 3 car steamed out of the pits with only 4 injured cars with, the race looked like it could be over. Falling into the clutches of the leaders, Austin awaited a caution to get back on cycle. The leaders would pit and allow Austin to cycle around, 7 seconds behind first place. “We need a caution.” Andy Houston knew if they wanted a shot, they had to have help.
CAUTION CAUTION CAUTION
Andy called out, “Yeah man, that’s what we needed.”
“Are we gonna get four here?” Austin knew what he needed to keep the car charging forward.
“Hell yeah we are getting four!” The excitement in Andy’s voice could be felt through the radio, he was energized.
This, was not the last caution. With each new accident the 3 car cut through the field.
“He’s gonna have to go top/bottom/top like the rest of them. He’s not gonna be able to ride one lane, Andy.” Richard is one of the most observant men in the garage. As a former driver, he can see the lanes move and the cars change position. You can hear his desire to get in the pack, to compete, to race.
Finally Austin saw himself in P4, outside of the second row coming to restart. I am trying to balance watching the race and update in-car radio on Twitter. I’m not part of the team but people surely want to know what’s happening inside the car. Twitter is slow and I can’t update fast enough. The radio is 40 seconds ahead of TV and Andy calls him to green. The entire time I am looking at the black and red nose of this car and it is covered in speedy-dry. White dust. This will look amazing in the museum if he can pull it off.
This overtime restart, if we make it to the white flag, the next flag ends it. Andy calls Austin through the field.
“43 on your bumper. Stay with this 10 for now. Big push coming from the 43. 43 two back, one back, bumper.”
I look up to the TV. Twitter isn’t fast enough for me to update, I have to watch. A lap is 45 seconds, radio is 40 seconds ahead.
*heart beats faster and faster*
“Keep coming, keep coming, all the way to the line… Daytona 500 WINNER!”
I am glued to the TV, over half a lap left and Andy just told Austin on the radio he is the winner.
“YES! WE WON THE DAYTONA 500!”
“Way to go guys!”
The TV shows Austin get into the back of the 10. The 10 turns and collects the wall. The 3 car streaks off of turn 4, through the dogleg, across the finish line.
I’ve been pulling on my hair, eyes as big as silver dollars. Austin won the Daytona 500. We won the Daytona 500!
I sit back, lost for words. Emotions welling up but this time, I am left speechless. After almost 30 years of cheering on RCR, I get to see the 3 enter Daytona 500 Victory Lane.
Austin pitches the 3 sideways in the grass and proceeds to burn it down. The biggest victory of any stock car driver has become a reality. The smoke rolls and pours out of every part of the 3 car.
And then the dab.
The belly flop slide in the infield.
Victory Lane ceremony is done in a heartbeat. The confetti has been dropped. Champagne corks popped. Pop-Pop has been sprayed the team and he’s praised the team.
This is Daytona.
And in Daytona, the winner always takes home the girl. Mrs. Whitney Dillon called this win. Tonight, she will help Austin take that trophy home. A new home made together. If love conquers all, it conquered this track today.
The competition better be ready to see a lot more of the 3.