NC’s Austin Dillon wins crash-marred Daytona 500

Exactly 17 years after Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in an accident at Daytona, the famed No. 3 returned to the winner's circle

Austin Dillon celebrates with crew members after winning the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Austin Dillon saw his opportunity and took it to win the 60th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

Never seemingly among the top contenders all day, he got to Aric Almirola’s rear bumper on the final lap and bumped by him to put the No. 3 in Victory Lane at Daytona for the first time since the late Dale Earnhardt did it 20 years ago.

It was an overtime finish totaling 207 laps, seven more than scheduled, as a late wreck made NASCAR re-rack the field for a final sprint to the finish.

Dillon is a native of Lewisville and races for grandfather Richard Childress, who was also Earnhardt’s team owner and best friend. Bringing back the No. 3, which hadn’t been used since Earnhardt’s death at this track in 2001, was finally blessed by Childress three seasons ago.

Now its legacy has been lifted even higher.

The race for the lead was intense over the final few scheduled laps, but with two to go, one of Daytona’s customary big wrecks shook up the field with Denny Hamlin up front.

Daytona is a 2.5-mile D-shaped oval, and as one of only two tracks of that type in NASCAR — the other is 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway — the cars run with restrictor plates. That limits the air intake into the engine and serves to slow the cars down and essentially levels the playing field.

That means cars running close together at 200 mph with no good way to avoid getting caught up in a crash once one starts.

NASCAR continues to have two stages in a race before the final finish after deeming it a success last year, and with points towards and in the playoffs on the line, drivers race aggressively near the end of the events.

With the stages being set for the Daytona 500 at Lap 60 and Lap 120 of the scheduled 200-lap event, things got dicey on Lap 59.

A wreck involving multiple cars — it’s usually called “The Big One” — is a fact of life at Daytona, making it a race of attrition. Caught up in it on Lap 59 were seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, William Byron, Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson.

Kurt Busch was out front and away from the carnage to win Stage 1, but he was caught up in the crash on Lap 198 and taken out of contention.

As the laps wound down in Stage 2, another big crash took out Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott and Danica Patrick among others on Lap 102.

Ryan Blaney was in the lead then and went on to win Stage 2, setting up the frantic finale.

Alex Bowman, who took over the No. 88 Chevrolet Camaro from Dale Earnhardt Jr., started on the pole and near the front late when he too crashed on Lap 198.

Hamlin was leading early when a caution came out on Lap 9 and that led to near-disaster for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry. He partially ran through his pit box, and before he could back up, the gas can man started fueling the car. That meant a one-lap penalty from NASCAR and a long slog to get that lap back.

But as is often the case at restrictor-plate tracks, back he came and was among the top contenders again by Lap 140.