Daytona 500: Austin Dillon's win shows NASCAR's next generation is here to stay

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Twenty years ago, Dale Earnhardt won the 1998 Daytona 500 in his famed No. 3 car. Three years later, Earnhardt tragically died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Many thought that Earnhardt's No. 3 would never race again in the NASCAR Cup Series ... until Austin Dillon showed up. Dillon, the grandson of Earnhardt's team owner Richard Childress, was tabbed as the man for the job in 2014 and was met with mixed feelings from fans.

"My grandfather has done everything for me and everybody knows it," Dillon said after the race, via the Associated Press. "There's a lot of pressure on me to perform because I've had a little bit of everything. But I like that pressure, the same with the No. 3, there's a lot of pressure behind it, but I'm willing to take it and go with it."

Dillon was just 7 years old when Earnhardt won that Daytona 500 in 1998 and was in Victory Lane to watch his idol wave the checkered flag. Fast-forward 20 years later and Dillon is the 2018 Daytona 500 champion while driving his idol's No. 3.

Here's where the story gets deeper: When Earnhardt won in 1998, he had a "lucky penny" in his car given to him by a then 6-year-old Wessa Miller. On Sunday, Dillon also had a lucky penny in his car.

"We just had a run and I stayed on the gas. It's what it is when you're at Daytona," Dillon said. "It is so awesome to take the 3 car back to victory lane, 20 years ago. This one's for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and all those Senior fans. I love you guys. We're going to keep kicking butt the rest of the year."

Dillon's win on NASCAR's biggest stage in NASCAR's most famous number almost feels like a sign of approval from "The Intimidator" himself and it couldn't have come at a more convenient time. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. now retired from the sport, it was time for someone to step up and usher in the next era of stock-car racing.

On Sunday, NASCAR's younger generation -- led by Dillon -- did just that. Behind Dillon,  rookie Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. finished second while 24-year-old Ryan Blaney secured the most laps led with 118. Wallace is the first full-time African American driver in the sport since 1971 and Blaney is coming off a strong playoff season.

But it wasn't only in success where the younger generation succeeded in capturing the hearts of fans either. Gasps could be heard from the Daytona International Speedway crowd when 22-year-old Chase Elliott went spinning earlier in the race.

If anyone was worried about who would step up in Dale Jr.'s absence, fear no more. These young NASCAR drivers are here to stay, and here to make names for themselves as the Earnhardt name and number continues to live on at the same time. 

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