Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, February 19, 2018, 9:29 a.m.
When the Daytona 500 ends, the men and women there to describe it go into what can best be described as an assembly line. They process, decipher, and otherwise attempt to make sense of a steady flow of information. They listen to their recorders, now contained within the small universe of their phones. They monitor media conferences and crank out their assigned stories as information becomes available, and, finally, they leave the track hoping that somewhere in their copy exists some modest amount of insight.
Not being there, I had the luxury of thinking about the events of the 60th Daytona 500. I had the luxury of going live on Facebook to entertain those who joined in with my thoughts and songs in one way, and entertain their questions in another.
Then I slept on the race. This morning the irony awakened me instead of the sunrise.
Exactly seventeen years earlier, Dale Earnhardt’s life ended at Daytona International Speedway. On the final lap of the 43rd Daytona 500, Earnhardt was keeping pursuers at bay while Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were escaping to finish first and second, respectively. The blocking cost Earnhardt his life. A bump from behind sent Earnhardt’s Chevrolet careening into the fourth-turn wall.
On Sunday, another No. 3, driven by Austin Dillon, won NASCAR’s most prestigious race. On the final lap, the Ford driven by Aric Almirola was keeping Dillon at bay. Dillon had committed to a “run” when Almirola moved to blunt his momentum, and his Chevrolet hit Almirola’s Ford on the left side, turning it into the wall.
Dillon won the race. Almirola walked away. As Robert Frost noted, “that has made all the difference.”
In the years between Earnhardt’s fatal crash and Almirola walking away, NASCAR has gotten much safer. The incident was a measure of that progress.
Opportunities to win the Daytona 500 don’t happen often, but Almirola will have others.
“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. I put every move I knew to try and stay in the lead and, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to hold on. He got to my back bumper and was pushing and just hooked me. My heart is broken, but the beauty is we’ll go to Atlanta, and we’ve got an incredible race team here at Stewart-Haas Racing, and we’ll have another shot next week.”
If a person could experience an earthquake while knowing he or she wouldn’t be injured, it would be the ultimate thrill ride.
One reason why modern restrictor-plate racing is breathtaking on the one hand and crazy on the other is the drivers are all confident, with justification, that they will not be seriously injured. Almirola was right. Earnhardt wasn’t. Dillon bears little remorse. He did what it took to put No. 3 back in victory lane at Daytona.
“The last lap of the Daytona 500, you just don’t lift, actually the last couple laps,” Dillon said.
Racing requires great courage. It doesn’t require great sense. The culture has changed. A man does what it takes. He throws caution to the aero flow.
It’s not as scary as it used to be. Nor is it as risky. Millions of dollars were spent to make the cars safe after NASCAR lost its preeminent figure. They were worth it. The cars were vastly different. Most of what they had in common was a number. Three.
Both went to glory in their way.
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