DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Austin Dillon would fly home from another miserable race last year — say, a 35th-place finish at Talladega or a 37th at Chicagoland — and try to comfort himself with thoughts of when he was feeling sky-high.
“Every time you have a bad race, you’re justifying it,” Dillon said. “Well, we won the (Daytona) 500, you know.”
Bubba Wallace was the feel-good story as the rookie driver who flourished at Daytona. He was second behind Dillon for the highest finish ever in the race for a black driver, and he threw a family reunion on the dais when his teary-eyed mom and sister crashed the party.
A year later, Richard Petty Motorsports is still a mid-pack team scrambling for sponsorship and battling financial woes that have put the future of the organization and Wallace’s ride on the rocks.
How about a repeat finish at Daytona? Even the 25-year-old Wallace is not convinced it is in the cards.
“A lot of people hyped this story up coming back as, ‘Oh, you are going to do it again.’ It’s like, let’s pump the brakes,” Wallace said. “Let’s get through the rest of the week and let’s make it to lap 199.”
Dillon and Wallace finished 1-2 in the kind of finish NASCAR was banking on as the genesis of a breakthrough season for its youth movement. Dillon put the No. 3 car made famous by Dale Earnhardt back in victory lane. He met a kid who gave Dillon a lucky penny that the driver taped to the dashboard. Wallace took a phone call from baseball legend Hank Aaron and rekindled glory days with Petty. He starred in a docu-series on Facebook Watch and the driver who has tried to build his brand on social media had fans flocking to him for selfies.
They were young, raced with iconic car numbers, and had enough social media savvy that could potentially attract Generation Z to a sport in dire need of a lift.
That 1-2 punch morphed into a seasonlong punch in the gut.
The buzz of his biggest win sent Dillon to “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” put him on a podcast with Shaq and, this week, he toured Disney World in a surprise visit with the 12-year-old boy who had given him that penny.
His post-Daytona results were chump change.
Dillon was caught up in the Chevrolet malaise as series drivers struggled in the first year of the Camaro. And Richard Childress Racing, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this season, has slipped to a second-tier team unable to consistently compete with NASCAR’s heavyweights. There was no Daytona 500 shine — Dillon had just one other top-five finish and was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. He finished 13th in the standings.
“I think I’ll just respond differently now if I won it again, trying to stay on it each and every week,” Dillon said. “But you’ve still got to have the car capable of doing it and the speed out there each week to finish where you would like to finish, and that’s first.”
“The Great American Race” is sprinkled with winners who never again achieved the heights set on their greatest day. Trevor Bayne. Derrike Cope. Pete Hamilton. Ward Burton. Dillon would rather become the fourth driver to win consecutive Daytona 500s. Petty (1973-1974) and Cale Yarborough (1983-1984) both won two straight Daytona 500s, and no driver has had his name etched on the Harley J. Earl Trophy two straight years since Sterling Marlin (1994-95).
“It seems like a hard thing to do,” Dillon said. “This place is not easy to win at. That’s why it’s so special, and so many people haven’t won here.”
Wallace’s season unraveled almost as soon as the last piece of confetti was swept at Daytona. He failed to post another top-five finish and finished a woeful 28th in the standings in the No. 43 Chevy. His rotation of sponsors was straight out of a late-night infomercial, with at least a dozen (Pioneer Records Management, Mile 22) on the hood of the 43. Wallace has headphone company AfterShokz as his primary sponsor in Sunday’s race.
Dillon and Wallace each have new crew chiefs for 2019. RPM promoted lead engineer Derek Stamets to replace Drew Blickensderfer, and RCR had Danny Stockman replace Justin Alexander on the pit box.
Dillon was not much of a factor in last year’s race until the final lap in overtime when he got a push from Wallace that nudged him closer to leader Aric Almirola. Dillon spun Almirola, then zipped to the lead to win a race, a trophy and eventually some lessons learned on how to handle the magnitude of NASCAR’s marquee weekend.
“It was definitely hard being a first-time winner last year and juggling everything that comes along with it, but I would never throw that away,” Dillon said. “It’s a championship in itself winning here, so it feels pretty dang good. But you’ve got to refocus at some point, and I think our team put together a really good championship effort in the final 10 races.”