No. 3 takes checkered flag at Daytona 500 once more

What if they held a race and the car was the star?

It’s just inanimate sheet metal and unholy power, after all. But slap the right number on it, place it in the perfect context of place and time, humanize it just short of making it talk, and you have a different kind of headliner for Sunday’s big car fight.

Spell it out in big type:

“No. 3 Wins Daytona 500. Again.”

It has been a nice, round 20 years since the most famous owner of that prime number, the late, great Dale Earnhardt Sr., won his only 500. And a difficult 17 years since he died in this race, slamming that same number into the last turn of the last lap.

When the noise filled the cavern of the Daytona speedway at race’s end, you just knew they were giving it up for the good ol’ No. 3 leading the one and only lap that mattered – the last one. If any of the cheers spilled over onto the humans involved, well, they can consider themselves blessed.

The car’s owner from back in the glory days made no secret that this was an occasion of tribute as much as one of victory. “Being able to win with the 3 car 20 years after Dale won in ’98, is so special,” Richard Childress said. “I can’t let the fans know enough how special this is.”

Oh, and yes, there was a flesh and blood hand on the wheel and foot on the throttle. It belonged to Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, a 27-year-old North Carolina native who now has two Cup victories in his quiver.

But enough about him.

Even Dillon knew there was a legend standing with him in victory lane.

“This is for Dale Sr. and all those Earnhardt fans,” he exclaimed immediately after the finish.

And, as if the crusty Earnhardt himself was talking, he added, “We're going to keep kicking butt the rest of the year.”

Earnhardt would have been delighted with the manner of victory, a close, contentious last-lap duel. Even if No. 3 no longer wears the menacing all-black paint scheme of yore, it is still capable of intimidation. On the last lap, Aric Almirola stood between No. 3 and the finish line. Only one option – move Almirola. No. 3 answered Almirola’s attempted block with a well-placed nudge. Almirola crashed. No. 3 won.

To anyone taking exception to the move, Dillon had a simple enough answer: “I guess I could have lifted (off the throttle) and given (the race) to him, give back the Daytona 500 ring that I have now.”

Finishing second was Hank Aaron’s favorite driver, Bubba Wallace. The rookie, driving another famously-numbered car – Richard Petty’s 43 – was the highest-finishing African American driver in the history of the Daytona 500 (that distinction had belonged to Wendell Scott). Scott also was the last African American to run full time in NASCAR’s premier series, way back in 1971.

Before the race, the Braves legend phoned Wallace to wish him luck.

“Hey, somebody told me, Hank Aaron’s on the line,” Wallace said. “I said, ‘Whaaaaaat!!!’”

Attrition remains undefeated in the Daytona 500.

Dillon just borrowed the moment.

The usual big wrecks knocked out so many of the favorites. Notable among the 15 drivers who didn’t finish Sunday was seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who destroyed his third car of Daytona Speed Week. Boy, are his insurance rates going to jump.

Then there was Chase Elliott.

Last year, Elliott was the poor kid who sputtered just short of home with no gas money in his wallet. He was a Daytona 500 threat all the way to the point he ran out of fuel with just less than three laps to go.

Now, introducing the new, edgier Chase Elliott, the earthbound stunt pilot who is beginning to believe he can steer a stock car through a donut hole.

Different personality, same result: Daytona 500 disappointment.

Sunday, Elliott drove with a badger’s aggression, sticking his snout into all manner of tight spots and risky nooks. It caught up to him two-thirds into the race, when he ducked down to make an impulsive block and ended up sideways in the wall.

“Didn’t make the right move,” he said.

Not really so much else to say, other than, “I hate it. I just wanted to make it to the end and give ourselves a chance, so I hate that we didn’t have that opportunity.”

To the survivor goes the spoils.

Unbeknownst to those listening, Earnhardt’s son, the just-retired Dale Jr., set the stage for No. 3’s meaningful victory.

Asked his relationship with a place where he has experienced both victory and loss, Dale Jr. said, “When (his father) passed away here, I had two choices: I could hate this place for it or it could become even more special to me and I could become more connected to it because of that circumstance.

“I chose to embrace the track more. I knew how special this place was to my dad. It’s more meaningful to me personally maybe more so than to other competitors as a cornerstone of this series.

“I made peace a long time ago with this race.”

It was past time for No. 3 to ride to the Daytona 500 victory lane once more.