History repeats itself at Daytona, right down to a lucky penny

Just like NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1998, Austin Dillon used a fan's good luck charm to drive the No. 3 car to victory at the Daytona 500 on Sunday

Race car driver Austin Dillon meets the media with young fan Jordan before Wednesday's Daytona 500 winning celebration at Richard Childress Racing headquarters on Wednesday. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

WELCOME — The symmetry was so magical, it was almost too good to be true.

Twenty years after Dale Earnhardt Sr. earned his only Daytona 500 win, and on the anniversary of his death at the track, the grandson of car owner Richard Childress duplicated his victory in the same iconic No. 3 Chevrolet.

Austin Dillon, who was in Victory Lane with Earnhardt on that memorable day in February 1998, won this year’s Great American Race with an aggressive final lap move that would have made the late NASCAR legend proud. Afterward, he paid tribute to Earnhardt by performing a similar celebratory burnout in the grass along the front stretch.

But those aren’t only parallels to a story Childress said was “almost like a movie script that was written.”

On the day Earnhardt won his 500, he carried a lucky penny in his car given to him by a young fan prior to the race. Twenty years later, history repeated itself, thanks to a chance prerace encounter between Dillon and an 11-year old named Jordan.

“Jordan was in an autograph line. He came through and had a (Ford) hat on and I said, ‘Hey man, if you don’t have a favorite driver, I want to be your guy,’” Dillon said Wednesday, recalling the event before a celebratory luncheon at the headquarters of Richard Childress Racing. “I told him, ‘I’ll give you my hat if I’m your favorite driver.’ I signed it and gave it to him and didn’t think much of it after that. It was like, I gained a fan.”

Did he ever.

The next day, Jordan — whose family asked that his last name not be used — was waiting for Dillon against the fence next to the garage area. He caught his new favorite driver’s attention as he walked by. When Dillon came over, the youngster gave him a penny to put in his car during the race.

“I didn’t know if he knew or his grandmother had told him about it,” Dillon said of the original good luck penny, which was given to Earnhardt by 6-year-old fan Wessa Miller. “I just thought ‘this is cool’ and I want to put it in the car.”

The coin was glued to the dashboard of the No. 3 Chevrolet Dillon drove during last week’s Advance Auto Parts Clash.

The story didn’t gain much traction after Dillon finished fifth in the exhibition race contested among the previous season’s pole winners and the car was shipped back to North Carolina.

But that changed after the car Dillon planned to use in the Daytona 500 was wrecked during one of the twin qualifying races at the track Thursday.

“We get our car torn up and we need to go to a backup,” Dillon said. “So we’re going to bring the Clash car back, and I said make sure it has the penny. They brought it back up here for the 500, we ran it and it was a perfectly clean car that made it through two races at Daytona with no scratches and a trophy.”

To show his appreciation, Dillon had Jordan and his family flown from their home in Florida so they could attend Wednesday’s gala. It was his first time on a plane.

During a photo opportunity with the driver before the celebration began, Jordan was asked by Dillon why he decided to give him the penny.

“I was thinking that you gave me the hat and it was such a special gift, I was thinking I would give you something back in return,” the youngster said. “It was a penny and I thought it would give you luck.”

Dillon is hoping his luck will continue through the rest of the season as he prepares to move on from his Daytona victory and chase a Cup series championship — a goal Earnhardt accomplished seven times in the No. 3.

He’ll have to do it without Jordan’s penny, though.

That’s because, in keeping with tradition, it and the car Dillon drove to Victory Lane will be on public display at Daytona for the next year.

“The penny is still in the car. It’s in Daytona,” Dillon said. “It’s really special. I think that penny deserves a home. Most pennies are on the ground for a long time. That one’s got a home and it will stick there on that car.”