Time might heal all wounds, as the saying goes, but Brad Keselowski has found that is not the case when losing the Daytona 500.
“It don’t get better,” Keselowski laughed Saturday after being fastest in final practice. “You just feel like you’re in position and it doesn’t happen and yeah, it’s super painful. The closer you are to winning the race, the more painful it is.”
Keselowski can attest to how close a driver can repeatedly get to winning the Daytona 500 only to leave the racetrack empty-handed. A year ago, Keselowski didn’t have the right runs at the end of the race. In 2021, he was running second with a run down the backstretch but ended up being shoved off the front bumper of Michael McDowell into teammate Joey Logano and crashing in Turn 3.
Those are the recent examples. Keselowski has led 135 laps in his Daytona 500 career with top-five finishes and seven DNFs.
“The last three years, we’ve been either leading or second place in the last few laps, so you know you’re right there,” Keselowski said. “You know that it’s just barely out of reach and so that certainly builds a frustration. We came down here a couple of years where we weren’t even close, and you left here going, ‘well that sucked,’ and it didn’t hurt as bad. It hurts a lot worse to be close.
“The Olympic saying is the worst thing you can do is get a silver. Bronze, you’re happy you get a medal and gold, of course, you’re happy to leave. But silver, you know you’re that close and it just didn’t happen, and I feel like I have a lot of Daytona 500 silvers. We’re really hopeful that we can leave with the big trophy this time.”
As hurt as Keselowski has been by Daytona, he is not throwing himself a pity party. He acknowledges his lack of a Harley J. Earl trophy has been everything from simply not closing the deal to bad execution and also a few bad breaks.
And like any driver, the RFK co-owner remembers the races that got away. But the memory recall is heightened when it’s the sport’s biggest race.
“Oh yeah, 100 percent,” Keselowski said. “I could pick down the last 12 years here of, this didn’t go right (or) there was nothing I could do different. Or, this didn’t go right, and I maybe should have made a different move here or there, but that’s how it goes.”
A win in the Dayton 500 is the last crown jewel for Keselowski to claim. A former series champion, he has been victorious in the Coca-Cola 600, Brickyard 400 and Southern 500. His career also includes notable victories in the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
“Those mean the world to me, they really do, but the Daytona 500 is still our biggest race of the year no matter how you look at it, it still stings to not have it,” he said. “It stings to have been so close in so many different ways. I’m not Dale Earnhardt in 1998 or anything like that, but I feel like we’re due more than probably anyone else to win this race.
“That means nothing when you get on the racetrack. Nobody cares. The other drivers don’t care. The other teams don’t care. They’re all out there to win it for their own, and you’ve got to go earn it, so all I know to do is just to continue to run up front, be in position, not have to count on lucky breaks and hopefully, they go our way or at least we don’t get any bad breaks.”
A former Team Penske driver, it seemed fitting that Keselowski compared the Daytona 500 to another famous race.
“There’s the old Indianapolis saying, you don’t win the Indy 500, the Indy 500 kind of picks the winner,” Keselowski said. “Sometimes it feels that way here that the winner of this race – if you go back and watch the last three or four laps — the winner is usually decided, at least for the Daytona 500, by the move that the third and fourth-place car makes. Almost every year.”
Not all races are created equal, either. So while Keselowski is frequently in the mix at Daytona and Talladega, he’s found the most success at Talladega.
Victories came in the 2016 summer race at Daytona, the 2018 version of the Clash, and his Bluegreen Vacations Duel race last season. But Keselowski has six points-paying wins at Talladega.
In looking at the two tracks, Keselowski said, “You can’t drive the third and fourth-place car and the first-place car all at the same time. That said, you’re at the mercy of that car, and I feel like to some degree you are at Talladega, but probably to a lesser degree, and it’s easier to manipulate the third and fourth-place car at Talladega than it is at Daytona.
“So when all those pieces come together, I guess my individual breakdown is I haven’t had the right third or fourth place car behind me when I’ve been in a spot to win the (Daytona 500), which is part of the frustration that comes with it. But that will be what to look for on Sunday.
“If I’m a fan in the stands and I’m watching the field go under the white flag, candidly, I’m not looking at the leader. The guy who is running third or fourth is going to decide who wins the race – the move he makes, who he goes with, what he does will impact or determine the winner. That’s just not something you can control. You only drive one car at a time, but you hope to be fast enough that that person decides to go with you or that he has his best opportunity with you, or that he just quite frankly has the speed to do it.”
A third-place finish in 2014 is Keselowski’s best result in 13 tries at the Daytona 500.