By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Now that the 2018 NASCAR season is complete and the year is drawing to a close, we’ll take this opportunity to take a look back at the year that was. On the docket today is Part One of the 10 most memorable moments of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
20 Years Later: Austin Dillon Returns No. 3 to Daytona 500 Victory Lane
In 1998, Dale Earnhardt finally broke through with his first win in the Daytona 500 after coming so close for so many years. Austin Dillon and younger brother Ty were celebrating along with their grandfather, Richard Childress in Victory Lane.
20 years later, it was Austin Dillon’s turn to make a trip to the winner’s circle with the No. 3 team.
Though Aric Almirola was leading in overtime, Dillon channeled the Intimidator himself with a nudge to the rear bumper of Almirola’s car on the final lap, sending Almirola into the outside wall and Dillon to the lead. From there it was smooth sailing to the finish as Dillon returned the No. 3 car to Victory Lane.
“Daytona has a way with just making memories,” Dillon said. “This place makes memory after memory and they are life changing memories and I was fortunate to be in Victory Lane 20 years ago and I’m here again, but I’m driving – this is awesome!”
The Kyle and Kyle Show: Busch and Larson’s Thrilling Battle in Chicago
It’s no secret that day racing on 1.5-mile tracks is superior to night racing with a low downforce package. Add in extremely hot temperatures to make the track even slicker and two all go, no quit drivers and you’re in for an entertaining afternoon.
As the laps wound down, Kyle Busch had a 1.5 second lead over Kyle Larson, but the latter was on a mission to catch Busch and the two were headed for a late race showdown. On the white flag lap, it all came to a head.
Larson dove underneath Busch in Turns 1-2 in an effort to pull off the slide job, but couldn’t quite get it to stick, making contact with Busch and sending him into the outside wall. While Larson pulled away with the lead, Busch gathered up his car and set his sights on catching back up to him.
He did just that when they reached Turn 3, giving Larson the chrome horn and sending him for a lengthy slide. Busch went on to win by 1.875 seconds after Larson was able to maintain control of his car and hang onto a runner-up finish.
“I roughed him up, he roughed me up. That’s racing,” Larson said. “I have a lot of respect for Kyle Busch. He has a lot of respect for me. Yeah, I mean, like I said, that was hard racing. I had a lot of fun.”
Chase Elliott Finally Breaks Through
Chase Elliott, the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, has been a fan favorite since he first entered the sport and in his three seasons in the Cup Series has come agonizingly close to his first win only to fall short one way or another.
Coming into the Go Bowling at The Glen in August, Elliott had eight runner-up finishes, same as his famous father when he finally broke through and scored his first career Cup Series win – on a road course, no less.
His shortfalls in reaching Victory Lane in 98 previous starts only amplified the fan reaction to seeing Elliott’s Chevrolet at the front of the field as illustrated throughout the race on the seven-turn, 2.45-mile road course. The crowd went wild when Elliott took the lead and scored the Stage 2 win and as the laps wound down, they seemed to be willing him to victory.
As Martin Truex, Jr’s fuel tank ran dry and he fell by the wayside on the final lap, the crowd erupted just as much as Elliott and his team as they finally got the monkey off their back and claimed their first win on NASCAR’s highest level.
Elliott himself noted how much he appreciated the fan response in his post-race comments on the frontstretch.
“Thanks to all the fans. You guys were rowdy after that checkered flag,” Elliott said. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen and I just want you all to know that. And, I am very grateful. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Let’s go get some more.”
The fans and his team weren’t the only ones losing their minds over the win, the majority of the Cup Series field made their way to Victory Lane after the race to congratulate the newest winner on the circuit. Elliott’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, also went one step further, pushing Elliott’s car back around to the frontstretch after he ran out of gas on the cool-down lap.
The moment was like a symbolic passing of the torch as the seven-time champion is on the back side of his career and Sunday’s win seems like it will be a shot in the arm for Elliott and his team to go on a tear in the years to come.
“I just appreciate the support and the respect on the race track,” said Elliott. “Jimmie (Johnson) has been one of my heroes for a long, long time. I leaned on him a lot over this past off season and I always lean on him, but certainly a lot throughout this off season just about the opportunities I’ve had in the past and not closing them out. He has been a big supporter of mine and that was one of the coolest things ever and I will never forget it.”
Not only did Elliott breakthrough for his first win, he followed it up with two more wins in the Playoffs before eventually being eliminated in the Round of eight and finishing the season sixth in points.
Brad Keselowski Goes on a Hot Streak
As the regular season was drawing to a close, Brad Keselowski still had a goose egg in the win column as the Cup Series rolled into Darlington. 500 miles later, Keselowski was bringing his throwback Miller Genuine Draft Ford into Victory Lane to not only celebrate his first win of the season, but also his first Cup win at the famed track.
Little did he and the team know they were in for a wild ride over the next few weeks.
Keselowski followed up his Southern 500 win by adding another crown jewel when they arrived at Indianapolis for the next race on the schedule. After waiting out a soggy weekend, they finally hit the track on Monday and Keselowski made the most of it, outdueling Denny Hamlin over the closing laps to score the win. The win gave Keselowski and team owner Roger Penske their first win in the Brickyard 400 as well as giving Penske the season sweep at Indianapolis after also winning the Indianapolis 500.
A week later, the Playoffs began and the hot streak continued as Keselowski won at Las Vegas and punched his ticket into the next round. Ultimately, the party would come to an end later in the Playoffs, but the No. 2 team sure had the field covered in September.
The ROVAL Lives Up to the Hype and More
When Marcus Smith and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. decided to transform Charlotte Motor Speedway into an oval/road course hybrid for their fall race, everyone thought they were crazy. Drivers expected a crashfest, fans were hyped up about the new event from the time it was announced and with it being an elimination race, nothing less than pandemonium was on the minds of everyone involved.
Turns out it was one of the best races of the season and one of the coolest experiences in recent memory.
From the start of the weekend the track’s treacherous layout reared its ugly head, with several drivers finding themselves having to go to a backup car after crashes in practice and qualifying, but when the race started, things seemed to calm down…for a while.
However, when push came to shove and drivers had their Playoff lives on the line, the time to play it safe was out the window.
The sequence of events that led to the thrilling finish of the race began when Brad Keselowski led the field to a restart near the end of the race and couldn’t make the sharp left-hander into Turn 1, instead piling into the wall and taking several of his competitors with him.
While Keselowski already had his place in the next round secure, others involved, including Kyle Larson did not and he was among those damaged in the crash. When the race went back green, Larson was doing his best to limp his car home with enough points to be able to transfer on, while Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex, Jr. battled for the race lead.
Johnson needed the win to be able to move ahead and Truex was simply looking to give his team another victory before they shut down at season’s end.
As the two came off Turn 4 of the oval and headed toward the frontstretch chicane on the final lap, Johnson tried to pull off a banzai move by outbraking Truex and taking over the lead before they got back to the finish line. It almost worked, but Johnson lost control of his car and took out Truex in the process.
While Johnson and Truex tried to get their cars gathered back up to see who could cross the line first in a flashback to the 1976 Daytona 500, Ryan Blaney, who was running third at the time, came driving through the incident to take over the lead just feet from the finish line to score the win.
Johnson finished eighth after stopping on the frontstretch to serve his penalty for missing the chicane, while Truex fell all the way to 14th. Truex showed his displeasure with the seven-time champion by spinning him out on the cool-down lap.
The finish seemed to be enough for Johnson to still be able to make it through, but Larson, who was still on the track, bouncing off nearly every wall in an effort to finish the race, was able to finish just high enough to lock himself into the next round and keep Johnson out.
“Last corner, desperation behind us, that’s what you get,” said Truex after the race. “I gave him (Johnson) the inside lane, and he had the run through (NASCAR Turn 4), and I was real tight down there. I let him have the inside going down inside coming out of 4 there to the chicane.
“He just over-drove it and was never going to make it and he used me as brakes and turned us both around. It sucks. We could have raced side-by-side off the last corner for a win, and that would have been cool. The fans would have been digging it, but instead we finished 14th and he’s locked out of the Playoffs. I guess that’s what he gets.”