Column: What we got from the Daytona 500 was real – we need more real

By Jeremiah Davis

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s the Daytona 500. Everything about this day moves people attached to racing one way or another.

Some are snarky. NASCAR is boring and only about money – go to the dirt track if you want to see real racing, they’ll say.

Some are defensive. NASCAR is the biggest motorsport in the country and one of the biggest in the world and its sanctioning body bends over backwards – sometimes too far – to appease fans who have left or are barely hanging on, and the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the year, they’ll say.

Some are thrilled. Austin Dillon took the No. 3 back to Victory Lane in the Great American Race nearly 20 years to the day from when Dale Earnhardt did so. His emotion on the front stretch and his grandfather Richard Childress’ emotion in seeing his car and his grandson win the race that means so much was authentic, whether you like either of them or not.

Some are grateful. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. finished second and was embraced by his mom and sister in the media center, moving him to tears.

Plenty are angry. Dillon won the race after turning Aric Almirola on the back stretch after Almirola moved to block and Dillon didn’t lift. It’s a cheap way to win, they’ll say. It’s not the example to set for young drivers on how to win, they’ll say.

There’s a curious case of selective snark across social media when it comes to NASCAR, and in particular the way these races end. How Dillon won the race has produced immediate and forceful opinions.

Maybe I’m too simple minded, but it doesn’t seem all that complicated to me. Almirola, the leader, did what leaders have done all weekend: he made a sweeping move from the top to the bottom to block Dillon. It was 100 percent his right to do that as the leader of the race on the last lap. Dillon, in turn, with a mirror full of Wallace, didn’t lift. It was 100 percent his right to do that as a driver trying to take the lead of the race on the last lap.

Both were cashing in on an invisible contract signed by every driver who straps into a racecar. Almirola was doing what he had to do to win. So was Dillon. That’s racing.

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him. Guess that was my other option,” Dillon said.

Good luck explaining “he gave up” to the kids you’re trying to teach how to be competitors. And if you do, make sure to remind them that Dillon would’ve been ran over himself if he’d lifted.

The snarky group mentioned above complains most often about the sanitization of NASCAR; how there’s no “real” in the sport anymore – like back in the day when Earnhardt, Petty and Allison roamed the garage.

Consumers of racing have a simple request of race drivers: give it all you have. So why in the world should we be surprised when they actually do that thing?

Some facts for you: Austin Dillon has lived a privileged life. He’s the grandson of a multimillionaire who is a NASCAR Hall of Famer. He couldn’t help to whom he was born any more than you or me. His attitude can often come off as a young man who doesn’t fully understand the above, and can rub people who haven’t had that privilege the wrong way.

None of those facts matter, to be honest, when it comes to what happened at the end of the race. Not in practicality, anyway. Of course, there’s no way to actually know if the man who made that No. 3 famous would’ve made the same move, but we have all seen the videos of him making some similar. Many of the same people who profess their love for him cried foul Sunday night. Nevermind the fact that Alimirola said himself after the race that he wasn’t mad about it, that he blocked and that the only thing he felt was heartbreak, but it’s all a product of the style of racing and the stakes at play.

So what exactly did you hope for on Sunday?

If you hoped for wrecks, you got ‘em. If you hoped for action, you got it. If you hoped for history, you got it. If you hoped for someone new to win, you got it. If you wanted one of these young, dynamic, uber-talented drivers to make you want to root for them, holy crap did you get that.

We saw Bubba Wallace introduce himself as a full-time Monster Energy Cup Series driver in bombastic fashion. His “Adderall” comments on Fox in reference to Denny Hamlin after the race made for the quote of the weekend. Then, still riding the high of the day, he came into the media center and showed the kind of emotion folks seem to believe NASCAR drivers don’t have.

His mom, sister and rest of his family followed him in for his post-race media availability, and it turns out he hadn’t seen them yet. His mom wanted a hug. What followed was an extended embrace and tears shed amid the realization that he made his family proud. The highest finishing African-American driver in the history of this great race felt the weight of that this weekend, and lived up to the expectations. More than anything else he said in the media center, “I just wanted to make them proud,” was the realest thing of all.

Everything about Sunday moved those who watched one way or another. But set aside the politics and (very real and fair) frustrations with the sport itself for a minute. Set aside who your favorite driver is and how they did. Set aside how you believe you’d have handled yourself if you were behind the wheel of the No. 3.

Sunday moved us all because it was real. Austin Dillon doing what he had to do to win was real. Aric Almirola being heartbroken was real. Bubba Wallace holding his family and letting the emotion of the weight of so many things flow out of him unabashedly was real.

Racing needs more real.

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