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Austin Dillon cherishes Earnhardt legacy on ride to Daytona 500 Victory Lane

Tribune News Service logoTribune News Service 2018-02-19 By George Diaz, Orlando Sentinel

a group of people posing for a photo: NASCAR driver Austin Dillon and his team celebrate their victory in the 60th Daytona 500 race on Sunday, February 18, 2018 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. Driver Bubba Wallace finished second, with Denny Hamlin in third. © Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS NASCAR driver Austin Dillon and his team celebrate their victory in the 60th Daytona 500 race on Sunday, February 18, 2018 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. Driver Bubba Wallace finished second, with Denny Hamlin in third.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The time stamp was etched in tears of joy and pain, a throwback number and the memory of a NASCAR icon and ties that bind forevermore.

Austin Dillon strolled into Daytona's victory circle 20 years ago as a seven-year-old smitten by all the confetti and champagne and celebratory hugs to celebrate a man called Dale Earnhardt.

He was his grandfather's best friend, and a man who drove granddaddy's car really fast.

"I was just having fun collecting hats and crawling on the trophy," he said.

Twenty years later, the world is celebrating the rise of Austin Dillon as a speed-racer, and the winner of the 60th running of the Daytona 500 Sunday afternoon.

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The pain comes with the memory that Earnhardt died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Dillon burned a "3" into the infield on his victory spin, to honor a man who is family, and always will be.

"I know he's smiling down on us in victory," Childress said.

The victory will also include the controversial context of Dillon making a move on Aric Almirola on the last lap, getting to Aric Almirola's bumper out of the way in the last lap.

Dillon only led that last lap, but it was the only one that mattered. Darrell "Bubba" Wallace was second, followed by Denny Hamlin. Ryan Blaney led a race-high 114 laps but finished seventh.

"I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him," Dillon said. "That was my other option. Give up the Daytona 500 ring that I'm wearing. I'm glad he's not mad. If he needs to do it to me at Talladega to make people feel good, I have a Daytona 500 championship, trophy, ring, whatever.

"I got the three back in Victory Lane at Daytona. It feels pretty good."

Not so much for Almirola, who handled the disappointment with a gentlemanly perspective.

"It was the last lap and we're all trying to win the Daytona 500," he said. "It's the biggest race of the year and it's a career-changing race, so we were just racing really aggressively."

Dillon, 27, has traveled a demanding path since 2013, when, with the Earnhardt's family blessings, he took on the No. 3 in the Cup series.

It was a long journey for the Childress and Earnhardt family. Childress was so despondent and devastated after Earnhardt's death that he stood on the deck of Bill France Jr.'s dock in Daytona ready to walk away from it all.

Then he recalled a hunting trip to New Mexico with Earnhardt in the 1980s, and Earnhardt's cantankerous voice came to life.

They were climbing a mountain. Their horses were bridle-less. Dale's horse started slipping and started rearing up, back toward Childress, who had no choice but to jump off the mountain. The horse went flying with him, but they were both fortunate they were caught in a cluster of trees.

They were laughing about it later that night over a few adult beverages. Earnhardt called it the "great horse wreck." And then things got serious.

"You know, Dale, if I got killed on the mountain today you'd have to race Phoenix," Childress said.

Earnhardt looked Childress in the eye and said: "If it ever happens to me, you'd better race."

They have kept racing. Childress with his team and his grandsons, Austin and Dillion. Dale Jr. up until the end of the 2017 season, when multiple concussions forced him to walk away before things got fuzzy permanently.

Dale Jr. came back Sunday as the Grand Marshal for the race, reflecting on his father's death, saying that he has made his peace with Daytona. He chooses to embrace this place for all the good things that have happened here.

Childress said he fell in love with the place in 1965, when he came to Daytona and spelt in a tent off Nova Road. The love was broken in 2001, ever so briefly, but it came back just as quickly.

There were magical sparks once again, with the ending was scripted by a kid who made an aggressive move, reminiscent of a NASCAR legend named Earnhardt.

"The Intimidator" would approve.

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Related slideshow: Best of 2018 Daytona 500 (Provided by USA Today Sports)

2018-02-18-peyton-manning-daytona: Former NFL quarterback and pace car driver Peyton Manning leaves the drivers meeting during pre-race festivities prior to the start of the Daytona 500. Best of 2018 Daytona 500

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