The day started out painfully for Clay Millican and ended in the NHRA winners circle Sunday in a swirl of emotions that transcended the obvious joy of a racer who had slogged through 254 starts without a victory – especially after he had won more IHRA Ironman trophies than any Top Fuel driver in history.

At Bristol Dragway, in his beloved home state of Tennessee, on Fathers Day – a day he didn’t even want to talk about after losing 22-year-old son Dalton in a motorcycle accident in August 2015 – Millican claimed his long-awaited first NHRA triumph Sunday.

He defeated Leah Pritchett and her sizzling-hot Papa John’s Pizza Dragster in the final round with a 3.825-second elapsed time at 316.38 mph on the 1,000-foot course in his Parts Plus / Great Clips / UNOH Dragster. She countered with a 3.881, 307.09.

And Millican was convinced the victory was no coincidence.

“There’s no such thing as a coincidence. John Medlen told me that,” he said, mentioning another father who lost his young son, Eric, to a drag-racing accident in 2007. “There’s no such thing as a coincidence.”

He knew Dalton had orchestrated this day:

“He was riding [with us], and he got us four win lights,” Millican said.

“I couldn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “My lights sucked, but it didn’t matter.”

And he said, “When it’s your day, it’s going to happen. It’s no coincidence. This was supposed to happen. Mama [Martha Millican] always told me when the time was right it would happen. And today that time was right. I really mean that.”

But Millican and his soulmate, wife Donna, just about had resigned themselves to the chance that “maybe it’s not meant to be.” He said he soldiered on through one teasing final-round berth after another “because I love what I do.”

Then along came Fathers Day. It wasn’t the first he and Donna and son Cale had experienced without fun-loving Dalton. But it was just as hard on them all as the first had been.

“I didn’t want people telling me ‘Happy Fathers Day.’ I didn’t even want to hear about it this morning,” Millican said. “It’s a tough day for anybody who’s lost a child. It just is.”

Ever since that awful August day two years ago, Millican has questioned neither his faith nor his love of drag racing.

Nor did he doubt himself or his driving ability, he said.

“I’ve won so many IHRA races. I knew what it was like to win. I’ve won a bunch of races. But it’s been such a long stretch since I raced in IHRA. I never questioned myself,” Millican said. “I just started to work harder. I’ve been working than I ever worked.”

He has put one foot in front of the other, gone about his business and his passion, and immersed himself, as always, in the sport he loves so dearly. And that is what he did Sunday at Bristol. He said he sat in his dragster in the hot, sticky summer conditions and barely noticed the sweat pouring from everywhere underneath his firesuit. It was simply his day, as he eliminated Kyle Wurtzel, Brittany Force, and Steve Torrence for his ninth final-round appearance.

“I got crazy-emotional rolling up for the semifinal. I held it in. After we won the semifinal, Donna came walking over,” he said.

But it was a moment he needed all to himself.

“I just told her to back up and give me a little space,” he said.

Perhaps Millican was lost in prayer. Perhaps he wanted to send some words of love and remembrance to Dalton. Perhaps he thought about all the folks in Drummonds, Tenn., his hometown 500 miles away near Memphis, and how wonderfully happy they would be if he won this race on this day and how they might say they knew he could do it, after all the times they heard him “squealing my tires” around town as a kid. Perhaps his mind darted back to the days when Dalton and Cale played in the creek near this storied Bristol racetrack, in the days when the actual racing surface was 20 feet below the current one. Perhaps he felt the love, the racing luck, the dedication of his crew members – one of whom never even had attended a drag race before coming to work for team owner Doug Stringer and Stringer Performance at McLeansboro, Ill.

 Perhaps he felt all of that wrapped into one inexplicable moment, one overwhelming moment.

Then he went out and sealed the deal, on Fathers Day, at Bristol, Tennessee.

“I’m such a Tennessee boy. My family all lives here. We’ve never moved,” Millican said. “I’m proud of the fact everybody calls this my home race, even though I live 500 miles away. It’s my home state. I’m proud of this place. This is my home. We’re all about Tennessee,” he said. In the past, he has clarified: “I always say I’m a hillbilly, but I don’t come from the hills of Tennessee. I grew up near the Mississippi River, so I always say I’m a river rat.”

What he is is seventh in the standings as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series concludes a stretch of four races in consecutive weekends at Norwalk, Ohio – another former IHRA marquee racetrack where Millican has felt completely at home.

Millican was quick to give credit to Stringer, who he said “has spent a lot of money and sacrificed a lot” and to crew chief “David Grubnic and all the biys who work on this car. I mean that 100 percent. They bust their butts.” He said the normally serious, studious Grubnic “had an easiness about him all weekend. When that dude’s smiling, the results show.” And he predicted Grubnic “is going to have a lot more” trophies as a crew chief.

Pritchett advanced past Troy Coughlin Jr., Scott Palmer, and Shawn Langdon as she sought her fourth victory off the season. She’s fiercely competitive, but she understood what the victory meant for Millican.

“The first one is always sweet. So congrats to that entire team. It was a very deserving win,” she said afterward.

And who could argue?