Brad Keselowski was the first driver to kick off Daytona 500 Media Day(s) this week, a very different-looking affair this year.
Keselowski wasn’t in a director’s chair facing a pack of media members hungry for stories and armed with questions to shout out – queries they hope are acknowledged over all the others hollered out at the same time. He wasn’t inside the Daytona 500 club at Daytona International Speedway wearing a new season’s firesuit.
He was the first of a full slate of drivers scheduled to jump on Zoom in a nine-day marathon leading into The Great American Race on Feb. 14 – the perfect way to kick things off.
It’s hard to believe that Keselowski is one of the few notable NASCAR Cup Series veterans sitting on an extensive list of Daytona 500 losses. He is 0-for-11 in the prestigious Cup Series opener.
“My frustration level is pretty extreme, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “I’ve made some mistakes in that race, no doubt. But the last few years specifically, I’ve run really, really strong races and just didn’t have the ability to dictate my own fate. That’s what you want. You want the ability to know that when you drive a race car, you’re making a difference and that it matters; and that hasn’t played out the last few years, which is frustrating. But I know eventually it will, and when that moment happens, we need to capitalize.”
Six of Keselowski’s 11 appearances have resulted in his car returning to the garage before the checkered flag. Aside from a blown engine in 2015, the cause has alway been a torn-up race car; the Team Penske driver getting caught in the chaos that always seems to find its way to superspeedway racing.
Only twice has Keselowski finished inside the top 10 in the Daytona 500 – 2013 and ’14. But he’ll point to ’14, ’15, and ’16, and maybe even a year ago when he led 30 laps, as the years he felt were his best shots to win.
Daytona is the only crown jewel event not represented with a trophy on Keselowski’s mantel. A space remains next to the championship (2012), the Southern 500 trophy (2018), the Brickyard 400 trophy (also from 2018), and the Coca-Cola 600 bronze piston from last May.
He is hungry, desperate even, to accomplish the feat.
“It’s definitely the one big box I don’t have checked,” he said. “I’ve got the championship. I’ve won every other major but Daytona. The only other person that can claim that actively right now is Kevin Harvick, and I want to join that club. It’s a big club to be in – to have all the majors and a championship.
“I know I’m right there, and I want to make it happen and feel like I’ve done a lot of the right things to make it happen. I haven’t been perfect, but it’s certainly part of the source of frustration, for sure.”
Once the protege of Dale Earnhardt Jr., it’s fitting that Keselowski is one of the best superspeedway racers in NASCAR. His five wins at Talladega Superspeedway are the most for active drivers, and he has won at Daytona in both the non-points Busch Clash and the summer event.
But as greats like Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, and even a former Roger Penske driver in the No. 2, Rusty Wallace, can attest, it’s hard to get the gates to victory lane in the Daytona 500 to open. It never did for those drivers. It took 20 years for the race’s biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, to make it happen.
Keselowski has led 98 laps in the Daytona 500. In his 11 appearances, he’s run up front and played it safe. He has also been a good drafting teammate to his Ford counterparts when the strategy called for doing so.
And before you wonder: No, Keselowski doesn’t plan on doing anything different this year. Asked if he needed to be more selfish to be successful, he laughed.
“I think I’ve been pretty selfish,” he said. “You have to be selfish on the plate tracks, no doubt. But I can’t look back and say that I feel bad about any of the things that I’ve done over the last few years, or would change it.”
All he can do is keep showing up, and, perhaps like he was for media day, he’ll find himself first in line.