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EARNHARDT SR. PROVIDING STORYLINES AT START OF MONSTER ENERGY NASCAR CUP SERIES SEASON
It’s been nearly 20 years since Dale Earnhardt Sr. tragically passed away following a final-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. But one of the most beloved drivers in the sport’s storied history has certainly been a big part of the storylines through the first two weeks of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
First, in the season-opening Daytona 500, Austin Dillon brought the Richard Childress Racing’s slanted No. 3 to Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway for the first time in two decades. Dillon’s win in the Daytona 500 came exactly 20 years and, ironically, three days after Earnhardt Sr. won the “Great American Race” in 1998.
“It's incredible. You know, to come back 20 years later after Dale’s great victory here, and to be able to celebrate 20 years later with my grandson in the No. 3 car is just a storybook tale,” Richard Childress said. “I couldn’t be prouder of him, his race team. The Earnhardt family, I called them about running — Kelly and Dale Jr. — the 3, and they supported us all the way. And for all the No. 3 fans that stuck with us and pulled for Austin, it’s just — I’m speechless.”
Last week, Kevin Harvick picked up his first Cup Series win at Atlanta Motor Speedway since taking over for the late Earnhardt Sr. Piloting the No. 29 for RCR back in 2001, Harvick held off Jeff Gordon by just .006 for his first-career Cup Series win. He famously held up three fingers after the win, a tribute he replicated again this past Sunday.
“It means a lot to me, and it’s funny and ironic how all these things line up, and it’s kind of ironic how we wound up in Victory Lane that day. You see that 3 back in Victory Lane and us back in Victory Lane … it's just almost — it’s just how it’s meant to be,” Harvick said. “I think for me, to be able to kind of do that celebration again, very similar to what we did in 2001, I’ve been waiting a long time. … It felt good to pay tribute to that and park it in Victory Lane with a smile on my face and watch everybody smile with me.”
So, what kind of storyline could Las Vegas Motor Speedway cook up this weekend? A win by rookie William Byron might keep the Earnhardt Sr. ties going for another week. After all, Byron has taken over the No. 24 Chevy Camaro ZL1 for Hendrick Motorsports; that iconic number was made famous by Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt Sr.’s most vaunted rival. But that car hasn’t visited Victory Lane since Gordon beat Dale Jarrett to the finish line on March 4, 2001.
Byron, a 20-year-old rookie from Charlotte, N.C., has yet to find his groove through two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series starts. He finished 23rd at Daytona and placed 18th at Atlanta this past weekend. But Byron has proven to be a quick study, winning the 2017 NASCAR XFINITY Series championship as a rookie, one year after dominating the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with seven wins as rookie in 2016.
It would certainly be fitting to bring the No. 24 back to Victory Lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, especially with it being the third race of the season.