NASCAR Daytona 500 Auto Racing

Nitro High School graduate and former WVU football player Tyler Rader (upper right, with gas can) is a member of Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500-winning pit crew.

At the Greenbrier Classic pro-am last July, Nitro High School graduate and former West Virginia University football player Tyler Rader was on the bag, carrying golf clubs for NASCAR driver Austin Dillon as he played a round with Vijay Singh.

Rader is used to carrying things for Dillon, in particular a gas can as a member of his pit crew.

On Sunday, Rader got to help Dillon carry something else — a Daytona 500 trophy.

Not many people can say they were part of an Orange Bowl-winning team. Even fewer own both Orange Bowl and Fiesta Bowl rings. Rader does, and on Sunday he added yet another nugget to his resume — a win in the biggest event in stock car racing.

“It was an absolute blur, man,” Rader said. “It takes me back to the Orange Bowl. My dad asked me, ‘What’s the coolest thing you’ve done?’ I always said the Orange Bowl. Coming from West Virginia, that was my pro team and that was my Super Bowl. But this, this was a close second.”

The race itself was full of typical Daytona drama. Crashes wiped out pre-race favorites, allowing heavy underdogs like Matt DiBenedetto, Brendan Gaughan and Michael McDowell to make appearances in the top 10.

Dillon, who at the ripe old age of 27 is already considered a veteran of the sport entering his fifth full-time season in NASCAR’s premier series, had a plan. It was a plan he executed to perfection.

“All race long we stayed in the back,” Rader explained. “It was in his head after he ran the Xfinity [Series] race [on Saturday], because there was a lot of blocking and it was a caution-filled race. The plan was to hang out in the back and to be there at the end. We saw a lot of big cars wreck and by the end there were like five really good cars left.”

After what proved to be the final caution of the day, Dillon found himself in fourth place, starting on the outside lane of row two with just two laps to go.

Using a push from rookie Bubba Wallace, Dillon got to the back bumper of leader Aric Almirola and spun him around, clearing a path for Dillon to take the lead and the win as the field came to the checkered flag.

All told, Dillon led two laps, but was out front for the most important one.

“All we had was the jumbotron to look at,” Rader said. “It was showing the rear camera from Almirola’s bumper and it showed Austin coming up, and all of the sudden you see [Almirola] cut hard right and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, we’re winning this thing.’ ”

It was just the second career win for Dillon and the second career win for Rader, who was part of A.J. Allmendinger’s winning crew at Watkins Glen in 2014. Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte a year ago while Rader worked as part of Paul Menard’s crew.

Rader began working with Dillon in 2013 in the Xfinity [then Nationwide] Series. Dillon won the championship that year before joining the Monster Energy (then Sprint) Cup Series the following year. The two forged a friendship, with Rader living with the driver for a time.

While Rader’s journey into the sport has been unusual, Dillon was born and raised in it as the grandson of Richard Childress, the owner of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s famed No. 3 car.

Together, Childress and Earnhardt won six championships — Earnhardt won one prior to his time with Childress — from 1984 up until Earnhardt’s tragic death at the 2001 Daytona 500.

As successful as Earnhardt was — 76 wins in the sport’s top series and seven titles, a record now shared by Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson — the Daytona 500 was the one trophy that eluded him.

That is, until Feb. 15, 1998, when in his 20th attempt Earnhardt finally checked the final box on his career resume.

On Sunday, 20 years after Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win, Dillon drove the same storied No. 3 back to Victory Lane, marking not only the biggest win of his career but a sentimental win for fans of the sport.

And dumping 94 pounds of fuel at a time into that No. 3 was a Cross Lanes native who also achieved another remarkable goal in a young life that’s been full of them thus far.

“This one, by far ... I mean, this is the Super Bowl of motor sports,” Rader said. “And in the 3 car, 20 years after Dale won his, getting back to Victory Lane ... that’s movie-worthy. It’s one of the biggest wins of the last 10-15 years.”

After Earnhardt’s death in 2001, the No. 3 was retired until Dillon’s arrival in 2014. Childress’ decision to bring the number back was met with some controversy and backlash, and it added pressure on Dillon.

“He’s the most competitive SOB I’ve ever met in my life,” Rader said of Dillon. “I won’t even play golf with him. He wants to bet at anything, even if it’s pickup basketball. It doesn’t even matter if it’s money, he’ll bet you 100 pushups.

“But he’s the hardest on himself. He’s got that inner drive to compete and win and do whatever it takes, and that helps him carry that load. He doesn’t really feel the pressure from outside.”

How far the team will carry it this season remains to be seen. Dillon made the sport’s playoffs a year ago by virtue of his win at Charlotte, eventually finishing 11th in points.

Sunday’s win guarantees Dillon a spot in this year’s postseason as well, and Rader said the team is confident it can take things even further, starting this weekend at Atlanta.

“Last year [at Atlanta] for Richard Childress Racing, [Dillon] and [teammate Ryan] Newman were running like third and fourth until we had some battery problems,” Rader said. “And we just had a really good test at Las Vegas. We have a lot of high hopes for Atlanta, even though it’s much different than Daytona.

“At Daytona, [the driver] decides most of it out on the track, but Atlanta is an abrasive surface and we’ll probably have 10-12 pit stops.

“I think that’s probably where it will be decided — on pit road.”

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, or follow him @RPritt on Twitter