Twice the age and a gracious plenty more than the Daytona 500 winner, Austin Dillon (27), Thompson may have started at the rear of the field. He may have had a hand-me-down car and a patchwork pit crew. He may have felt as wrung out as a dried apricot at the end, but he did endure.
Asked the highlight of his great adventure, Thompson simply said, “The checkered flag.”
“Five-hundred miles in a car like that is quite exhausting. There’s a reason why the ones out there doing that are 23-, 24-, 25-years-old.”
Thompson’s story was a curious little sidebar at the beginning. Former Army helicopter pilot, a Vietnam veteran, owner of a Cartersville-based specialty aviation company decides to end his racing days with several exclamation points. A veteran of 100 lower level ARCA races, he got the notion to retire from that pursuit altogether, but not until he ran one Daytona 500. Purchasing a car that once belonged to Richard Petty Racing, benefitting from the shortage of entries for this race, he found himself on a dream ride.
But the longer the race went Sunday, the more sincere this little story got.
He finished ahead of seven-time Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson.
He finished ahead of two other champions, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.
He finished ahead of young pup Erik Jones, last season’s rookie of the year.
He was the highest-finishing Georgian, finishing ahead of both Chase Elliott and David Ragan.
All those others wrecked, while Thompson came in with one of the cleanest rides around. There were a few scuffs and dings on the right side of his ride – No. 66, just like his age – as his tight-handling car brushed the wall on occasion. He wobbled, but he never fell out.
In fact, the closest Thompson came to calamity, he figured, was on the final restart of the race as he rushed into the corner and almost let the speed of the moment take him sideways. “I thought, great, I’m going to lose it on literally the last lap,” he said.
But, “I finished the Daytona 500. What better way to call it quits?”
Saying he raced whenever he could, Thompson also was mindful of staying out of the way of the more competitive cars. That turns out to be good self-preservation tactic as well, with the hard-chargers regularly playing 190-mph bumper cars.
“This shows that as you get older, you’re not really out of the game,” Thompson said. “You can still accomplish quite a lot as you get older. It’s pretty neat running the Daytona 500 at 66.”
Might the experience gone so well, in fact, that he might reconsider retirement? After all, both he and the car remain quite intact.
“No, I’m ready to retire,” he said.
“It’s a long race.”