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Austin Dillon wins Daytona 500 after Aric Almirola wrecks late

Tampa's Aric Almirola was leading at the white flag but finished 11th.
DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18: Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 DOW Chevrolet, leads Clint Bowyer, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers Ford, during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 60th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2018 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images) 775122451
DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18: Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 DOW Chevrolet, leads Clint Bowyer, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers Ford, during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 60th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2018 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images) 775122451
Published Feb. 18, 2018|Updated Feb. 19, 2018

DAYTONA BEACH – As Austin Dillon celebrated his Daytona 500 win Sunday, he couldn't help but remember the time he was standing there, in Victory Lane, 20 years ago this week.

He was 7 then, and his index finger jutted into the air triumphantly to support the family friend to his left.

Dale Earnhardt Sr.

"Daytona has a way of making memories," Dillon said.

It's hard to top the one Dillon provided in the 60th running of the Great American Race, when he nudged Aric Almirola on the final lap and brought Earnhardt's famed No. 3 back to glory at Daytona International Speedway.

The echoes started long before the NASCAR Cup Series' season opener when a fan gave Dillon a lucky penny – the same gesture that preceded Earnhardt's triumph two decades ago. The pass that led to Dillon's second career Cup victory came not far from the spot where Earnhardt died, 17 years ago to the day.

Even the team owner celebrating Sunday was a throwback. Dillon's grandfather, Richard Childress, still owns Earnhardt's legendary car number.

"Dale made it famous," Childress said.

And Dillon finally brought it back to Victory Lane.

The turning point came after a 12-car wreck set up a green-white-checkered finish. Dillon was back in the pack, lurking behind Tampa-born Denny Hamlin and the Tampa-raised Almirola. Hamlin led at the restart but didn't get enough aerodynamic help behind him from the inside line.

Almirola pulled ahead on the backstretch and led at the white flag. Dillon got his own run after Turn 2 with a push from another iconic car, Bubba Wallace's No. 43.

"I was like, OK, this is it right here," Dillon said.

As Dillon pushed forward, Almirola moved high to try to block him.

"It was the last lap of the Daytona 500," Almirola said, "and I was doing everything I could to try to win."

It didn't work.

Dillon refused to lift off the gas and nudged Almirola heading into Turn 3. Almirola spun out. Dillon held off Wallace to lead his only lap of the day – the final one.

"I think I blacked out," Dillon said.

Even in a state of disbelief, Dillon knew what he had to do next. He slid through the infield grass to celebrate the same Earnhardt did when he ended 19 years of futility with his only win in NASCAR's biggest race.

"I don't know what it is about storylines and Daytona," Dillon said. "This place just creates history."

NASCAR continues to embrace that history, even as it searches for new fans who can reverse trends of dwindling crowds and TV audiences. That's why many of the series' rising stars bridge the sport's future with its storied past.

Like Chase Elliott – Awesome Bill's son – who had one of the fastest rides in Sunday's 40-car field. He led four laps before getting knocked out in a seven-car wreck midway through the race.

Or Ryan Blaney – son of NASCAR veteran Dave – who dominated all afternoon. He led 118 laps and was at the front of the pack before colliding with reigning 500 champion Kurt Busch with two laps to go. That accident set up the overtime finish that solidified Dillon was one of the sport's most important up-and-comers, too.

While Dillon's talent and connections were never in question, his car number was. Childress wasn't sure he wanted to revive the No. 3. After Earnhardt's death, he wasn't even sure he wanted to continue in the sport.

But he did, because that's what Earnhardt would have wanted, to create moments like the one he savored in the twilight at Victory Lane.

"I know Dale as good as anyone," Childress said. "And I know right now, he's smiling down."

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