Melillo’s Mind: 60th Annual Daytona 500

By Justin Melillo
February 24, 2018

Twenty years and a few days since the ‘Man in Black’ took his first and only win in the Great American Race, Austin Dillon, the heir to the No. 3, drove the iconic number back to victory lane at Daytona Int’l Speedway.

In a move that many think would make Dale Earnhardt proud, the older Dillon did what he felt he needed to do to earn the biggest victory of his career, in only his fifth try.

I never really thought about it until we took the lead about having a shot to win,” Dillon said. “I knew we were in a good spot if I could get a push down the backstretch.  

“Heck, we went down the backstretch, had a run, went low, the No. 43 went low and I just had more momentum than he did and caught him.  It turned him, but heck we won the Daytona 500 we are sitting here now.”

Aric Almirola, the unfortunate victim of Dillon’s drive to the front, was a half of a lap away from the biggest victory of his career. In just one race removed from the iconic No. 43, Almirola led the field in his first race in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Ford ahead of Dillon, Denny Hamlin in the FedEx No. 11, and the new driver for The King, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace.

Almirola made the blocks he needed to in order to stay ahead, but Dillon kept his foot in it, and a misaligned push sent Almirola’s Smithfield Ford into the outside wall, and out of the race.

“It was the last lap and we’re all trying to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola 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.”

It was a one-two finish for the new alliance between Richard Childress and Richard Petty, as Wallace finished second in a photo finish with Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

The new Chevy Camaro ZL1 is in Victory Lane and the RCR alliance is one-two, so it’s pretty good. It’s good to see the No. 3 back in Victory Lane here in Daytona with the No. 43 at the top of the board as well,” Wallace said.


It was a great race, and an exciting finish to witness as I stood in front of my recliner on Sunday evening. There was raw emotion in victory and defeat, exciting moves all around the racetrack, and a new face on the Harley J. Earl trophy.

The rules package was changed for 2018, and included the removal of the ride height rule, which put rear spoilers lower to the ground than they’ve been in a while. It somewhat removed the ‘bubble effect’ which leaders would use, switching back and forth between lanes, to block the forward progress of those racing behind them.

These factors, along with the determination of those looking to find themselves in Victory Lane, set up the overtime finish that left Dillon on cloud nine and Almirola wondering what could have been.

After taking a few days to digest what we saw on Sunday, I have mixed emotions from the entire weekend.

A lot of great, nerve-wracking racing was on display. Drivers that are normally not in contention on a week to week basis were competing for the biggest trophy in American stock car racing. The feel good stories and the rivalries created are setting up for a fantastic 2018 season.

However, not only was there carnage on Sunday, but throughout the entire speedweeks, and in all competing series. I’ve never been a fan of torn up race cars, and it just seemed that each race would come down to only a handful of vehicles due to the big accidents that would occur, especially near the end of the race.

- ARCA started the week off with multiple overtimes, and with their rules, if the yellow flies before the checkered flag, they re-rack and try again. This led to a couple of instances where the leaders wrecked trying to get the checkered flag.

- On Sunday, in the Advance Auto Parts Clash, sure enough, they junked it on the last lap racing for the win and took out almost half of the field.

- In the Can-Am Duels, 20 percent of the entered cars had to go to a backup for the main event due to crash damage sustained in the event.

- Friday night in the Camping World Truck Series race, only nine trucks were left to compete for the victory on the final lap, and there was even a spin coming across the checkered flag.

- The biggest disappointment was on Saturday, in the XFINITY Series, when there was FIVE OVERTIMES. Tyler Reddick won in a photo finish, but along with his teammate Elliott Sadler, both were involved in wrecks earlier in the event and had crash damage. Yes, it was the CLOSEST finish in NASCAR history, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that pretty much every car that entered that race had damage of some sort.

- Finally, on Sunday, there was about seven cars left without significant damage competing for the win, and the race was won by the winner wrecking the leader out of the way.

These cars should not be easy to drive by any means, but I feel like there could be more stability added to the cars, or a better rules package that could allow for aggressive driving and not end up with tens of vehicles on the back of a tow heading to the graveyard.

It is always said how much time these teams spend on their superspeedway cars on the offseason, and it’s really a shame to see all their efforts end up destroyed.

It’s a part of racing, especially superspeedway racing, but thankfully these cars are safe enough that nobody really complains about the wreckage as much as they should.

Overall, it was a spectacular weekend of racing for NASCAR, and to see the No. 3 back in victory lane is something special. Originally, I wasn’t very keen on seeing the number return, but I’ve accepted that like the other special numbers in the sport, it’s very important to see the legacies of the numbers continue to grow with each driver that takes the wheel.

Three of the most iconic numbers in the sport, No. 3, No. 43, and No. 11, finished one-two-three to start off the year.

It’s going to be a fantastic season... I can feel it.

IMAGES Franklin Romero/TRE

Jonny Olkowski/TRE

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